In January 2017 the Government published its Industrial Strategy Green Paper. Two of the 10 ‘strategic pillars’ it listed covered ‘science, research and innovation’ and ‘developing skills’—themes addressed in several of our inquiries over recent months. Our short report is intended to bring that work together, to feed into the Government’s consultation exercise on its Green Paper.
The welcome additional £2 billion a year of funding recently promised by the Government represents a valuable contribution to maintaining the country’s world-leading science status. It will help maintain the UK as an attractive location for science and research. The Government should, nevertheless, aim to increase R&D investment—in private and public sectors together—to the 3% of GDP target which we previously advocated. It must also be ready to ensure that its science funding makes up any net shortfall in research funding available through international collaborative research as a result of Brexit.
The broad innovation thrust of the Green Paper has been largely welcomed, including the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the Government’s approach of allowing sectors to take the lead in making the case for ‘sector deals’. A responsive UKRI, and a multi-disciplinary approach to its strategies and science funding, will make it easier to adjust research priorities to be tuned to our post-Brexit opportunities. We welcome the Government’s decision to survey the practices of universities’ technology transfer offices.
On the STEM skills gap, encouraging students from an early age to have an understanding of science needs to be a priority. The school curriculum must be kept relevant for students’ STEM skills needs as they enter a continually evolving workplace. Continuing reforms will need to be evidence-based, however, to reflect not just what employers need but also the evidence on what initiatives are most effective in increasing and sustaining young people’s interest in science and what really influences their study subject choices. Degree-level programmes are not suited to everyone, nor is it always the most appropriate way to develop STEM skills, so the announcement of the new T’ level is a welcome development.
While increasing the STEM skills of our children and students will help meet the needs of the workplace in future, it is also important to make use of existing STEM skills wherever they can be found, including from overseas. We reiterate our earlier call for the Government to give a firm commitment to EU researchers working and studying in the UK that they will continue to have a secure position here post-Brexit.
There is a weakness in the industrial strategy in that it could give more room for discussing or even acknowledging its links with Brexit. The industrial strategy must be configured to shape our Exit negotiations, but equally those negotiations will affect what can be achieved through the industrial strategy as well as how the different measures envisaged should be prioritised and re-prioritised. A regulatory regime that is well-crafted and relevant to our post-Brexit international research and trading relationships will be vital for a successful industrial strategy. While the possible post-Brexit scenarios are perhaps inevitably too difficult to map out at this stage, the Government must address the links between the industrial strategy and Brexit as the exit negotiations get under way and as the strategy evolves in what we hope will be dynamic document.
5 April 2017