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2 June 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:58pm

What does the general election 2017 mean for scientific research?

Freedom of movement matters when it comes to science. 

By Ben Fernando

Scientific research and technological development are rarely topics of discussion in election debates, and scientists are not normally known for being overtly political creatures. However, following government commitments to leave European funding and regulatory bodies, many scientists have turned to the Labour manifesto to look for alternatives.

Perhaps the most broad-reaching science pledge in the Labour manifesto was the commitment to increase spending on research and development (R&D) to the OECD recommendation of 3 per cent of GDP by 2030. The UK has long lagged behind the pack, spending only 1.7 per cent in 2015, compared with 2.8 per cent in the United States, 2.9 per cent in Germany, and 4.2 per cent in South Korea. The European Commission summed this up in a 2016 report by saying “the UK’s R&D intensity is stagnant and low in comparison to the EU’s innovation leaders”. By contrast, the Conservative manifesto pledges to raise spending only to the OECD average of 2.4 per cent by 2027, with a “long-term commitment” to 3 per cent.

Labour’s pledge to retain access to the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 program raises another funding issue. Between 2007 and 2013 the Office for National Statistics reports that the UK contributed €5.4bn to the European science budget, but received back €8.8bn, or a net flow into the country of €3.4bn.

In contrast, should the Conservatives win the general election and choose to restrict freedom of movement, the EU would likely respond by suspending the UK’s full access to the EU and European Commission grants program in the same way that it did Switzerland’s after a referendum there restricted freedom of movement in 2014. With most academics agreeing that access to Horizon 2020 and the Erasmus academic exchange is vital to the competitiveness of UK research, Labour’s commitment to retain membership of both matters.

Another freedom of movement issue comes up in the Conservatives’ plan to exclude international students from net migration figures. Theresa May’s insistence as both home eecretary and Prime Minster that they be counted has put her at loggerheads with numerous members of her own cabinet, and may well be responsible for the decline in applications from some foreign countries like India and Pakistan. The 2017 Conservative manifesto includes seemingly contradictory statements promising to increase the number of international researchers in the UK, but also to make it harder for international students to get visas to study in the UK. Given that they are a key source of talent and funding for most UK universities, this is unlikely to go down well with researchers.

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The Brexit bill in early 2017 surprised many by including a clause that would force the UK to leave Euratom, the European Nuclear Treaty which governs UK participation in nuclear fusion energy projects, maintains nuclear safety standards and lays the framework for the transport of radioisotopes used in cancer treatment. Labour’s pledge to retain membership of Euratom would likely be a relief to the industry, which is concerned about the implications of a withdrawal for the future of JET (the European Nuclear Reactor in Oxfordshire); and on the building by the French company EDF of a new set of nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset. With such international projects, many see independent regulatory oversight as a prudent and necessary measure. The same is true of the European Medicines Authority, currently based in London but scheduled to leave, which Labour also plans to retain membership of.

One criticism of the Labour manifesto is that it perhaps doesn’t fully recognise the link between economic success and R&D in the same way that the Conservative one does, which states that “long term prosperity depends on science, technology and innovation”. The sections on industrial strategy and research seem somewhat disparate, though this is perhaps a consequence of the short timeframe in which the manifesto was produced.

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Nonetheless, the commitment to the creation of a science innovation fund for specific sectors is probably a good idea, and might bridge the gap between discovery and commercialisation which in the UK seems somewhat wider than elsewhere. The idea of building a “Science Vale” between Oxford and Cambridge via Milton Keynes is also an interesting idea, and might be able to expand on the success of both the Oxford and Cambridge Science parks. Those outside the south-east of England, though, may be concerned that this will further focus research in the areas surrounding London. 

When asked about her views on what the Labour manifesto meant for Science, Chi Onwurah, who in the last shadow cabinet was minster for Science and Industrial strategy, said: “This is a manifesto which has science and innovation at its heart. I am proud that Labour is committing to building an ‘Innovation Nation’ and backs that commitment with investment in infrastructure and in day-to-day government spend – all fully costed”. It remains to be seen as to whether Labour will actually get the chance to implement their ideas.

Ben Fernando is vice-chair of Scientists for Labour