UK general election: how far do the parties go on science?

03 Dec 2019 | News

Researchers divine meaning from pre-election promises on Brexit, innovation incentives and climate change

The UK’s general election on December 12 is – for many researchers – about one thing only.

“This is a single issue election: Brexit versus Remain,” said David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London (UCL).

The Conservatives called the election – which polls suggest they should win – in an effort to achieve a firmer mandate to negotiate the country’s split from the EU.

But Brexit may cut the UK out of EU research programmes and dent the easy movement of scientists to and from the EU.

Party manifestos, then, are being judged on how they match up to the scale of the Brexit challenge.

What the main parties should be talking more about is protecting curiosity driven science, said Lee Cronin, professor of chemistry at Glasgow University.

“Research is one of our biggest exports. We aren’t talking enough about how to protect that in a post-Brexit world,” said Cronin, the recipient of an advanced grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to develop a liquid battery for electric cars. 

One of the Conservative party’s main pledges is to create a new technology funding agency based on the US’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“Instead of creating a DARPA, why don’t we double the blue-skies budget over night?” Cronin suggests. “That way you’re telling the world that the UK is staying open to basic sciences. That way they’re not going to have an exodus of scientists and it insulates us from the potential loss of ERC and EU Horizon money,” he said.

More than three years after the referendum, emotions are as strong as ever, with many scientists pessimistic about what Brexit will mean for their research, given that the EU has given no guarantees around the future of the UK’s access to science and research programmes.

“The Tories have managed to be completely and irredeemably unelectable for the whole sector,” argues Johannes Angermuller, professor in discourse, languages and applied linguistics at the Open University. “They are so antithetical to higher education and I know of not a single colleague or student with any sympathy for them. I think they are fundamentally incompatible with our values, not trustworthy, and dangerous.”

However, the Conservatives have put a strong emphasis on science in their manifesto. A key pledge is to overhaul the UK’s immigration system to make it easier for researchers to come for work.

Some point out that it’s an uncomfortable fit with the party’s Brexit vision. 

“The rhetoric of being welcoming but also controlled on immigration is not really landing,” says James Tooze, policy officer at the pressure group Campaign for Science and Engineering. “There were never any worries that the top world-renowned researchers were going to be stopped from entering the UK anyway – it’s all the other people, the technicians, the lower level researchers that you need also for a thriving research base.”

Julian Huppert, Director of the Intellectual Forum at Cambridge University, agrees that Brexit is the “single most important issue facing science and academia in the UK”.

“Whether we leave with a Tory Brexit, a Labour Brexit, a no-deal Brexit or anything else, the consequences are going to be hugely damaging. We are already seeing key academics and researchers leaving the country or deciding not to come here, and this will only get worse. European research funding is also important, but people are even more essential,” Huppert, a former Cambridge MP for the avowedly Remain-supporting Liberal Democrats, says.

The Lib Dem pitch is to stop Brexit, although a recent Ipsos Mori poll predicts the party gaining only 13 seats – fewer than hoped. “The poll finds that the Lib Dems are in first or second in 134 seats – if all Remainers voted Lib Dem in those seats, it would send a huge message,” said Huppert.  

Spending and incentives

Look inside the manifestos and there are plenty of specific science pledges.

There’s near full consensus across the parties on increasing R&D investment over the short term. The Conservatives, which talk about applied industrial projects in their plan, restate a commitment to ramp up the UK’s spending on R&D, which is lagging behind many competitor countries, from 1.7 per cent of GDP to 2.4 per cent.

“As far as I know, the Conservative party is the only one whose leader has made a campaign speech largely about science.  Maybe others are still polishing their scripts,” says Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at UCL.

Scientists welcome the promise of an uplift, amid some doubt that it will materialise if the economy suffers a Brexit-related slowdown.

“It’s noticeable that the parties who favour Brexit – the Conservatives and Brexit party – try and assure the research sector that recycled money from the EU will fill the gaps where that funding will have to stop,” says Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson, co-founder and director of For our Future's Sake, a student-led anti-Brexit campaign. “While Brexit uncertainty continues to hover over us, I would be surprised if any new sizeable funding was found for R&D.”

Price has similar feelings. “If we remain, the economy may recover and the exchequer may have enough funds in it to address productivity, climate change and research. If we Brexit, I fear that the economy will implode and whatever the parties pledge they will not have funds to fulfil them,” he said.

Tax credits for research is an area where the parties diverge.

The Lib Dems and the Welsh Plaid Cymru party want to keep and expand R&D tax breaks; the Lib Dems also mention increased funding for Innovate UK, the innovation agency of the UK Research and Innovation body.

Labour, which has been in opposition since 2010, meanwhile pledges to scrap the R&D tax credit for large corporations in favour of “direct support” for innovation. That, “arguably reduc[es] the attractiveness of the UK to business investors in R&D,” says Reid. “I have not heard an explanation from Labour of how their two policies on R&D fit together,” he said.

The Scottish National Party, the third largest party in Westminster after the previous two elections, barely mentions research in its plan. “This is surprising, given the large number of high performing universities in Scotland,” says Reid. 

Among the smaller parties, science investment is promised for specific areas. The Brexit Party pledges money for medical research and the Green Party for farming, forestry and clean technologies. 

The Conservatives also pledge to set up the UK’s “first Space Command”, which has left some people confused.

“It’s at odds with the UK Strategic Command that’s being set up next year, and the UK National Space Council that’s been announced three to four times. I imagine it’s the manifesto writers not really knowing what they’re writing about,” said Bleddyn Bowen, lecturer in international relations at Leicester University.

Abolish student fees

The two biggest parties are poles apart on university funding.

“The Tories’ manifesto is a curate’s egg,” said Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. “There is a cop out on big student finance issues, aside from a lukewarm mention of interest rates and some help for student nurses. There are welcome but old commitments on R&D spending and student visas."  

He says universities will “breathe a sigh of relief that their funding system is not in the Conservatives’ sights. But the level of detail is so vague that a huge spectrum of potential changes could legitimately be claimed in years to come to fit within these manifesto commitments. That’s probably by design and possibly not everyone will sleep easy as a result,” Hillman said.

Labour’s manifesto has an old promise to abolish university tuition fees, which the Greens have matched.

For universities, the big issue is what would replace the current system, said Nigel Driffield, professor of international business at Warwick Business School.

“If the money that universities get from government is a lot less than now, many places will struggle and I imagine some will close [or] merge,” he said.

This proposal would inevitably be a radical change for universities. “It may win a few votes, but would mean fewer student places and less well-funded universities,” said Hillmann. “Labour are [otherwise] saying the right things on research spending, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks taxpayers’ shoulders are broad enough to afford all of Labour’s promises.”

Climate change

The threat of climate change has prompted the greenest campaign in UK election history.

The Conservative manifesto includes a pledge to fund the rollout of electric vehicle charging points but show less ambition compared to other parties on cutting emissions. They are sticking with a – still world leading – plan announced in June to go "net zero by 2050". The Greens want to get to carbon neutrality by 2030, the Lib Dems by 2045. Labour say the bulk of the country’s emissions must be gone by 2030.

The Greens want to install a "climate chancellor" in the treasury and move away from the calculation that progress is driven by economic growth. The Lib Dems want to introduce mandatory carbon budgets for local government. They, the Greens and Labour would amend planning rules in favour of the environment and renewables.

All parties bar the Conservatives would remove the current block in the planning system against new onshore wind turbines. The Greens, Labour and Lib Dems also promote off-shore wind, while no party backs fracking for natural gas.

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