The prime minister’s decision to call an early general election is going to dominate the news over the next two months. The election will be an opportunity for Prospect members to make their views known to candidates from across the parties – and on science and innovation there are big questions that require answers.
The Science and Technology Committee has taken up the cause of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in its recent report, usefully asking three important questions:
- Will the government increase investment in research and development (R&D) to a target of 3% of gross domestic product (GDP) and will it make up any net shortfall in international collaborative funding as a result of Brexit?
- Will it give a firm commitment to non-UK EU nationals that they will continue to have a secure position in the UK after Brexit?
- Will it address the links between industrial strategy and Brexit, including the need for a well-crafted regulatory regime?
Prospect is clear that continued uncertainty for our science funding and collaboration with international partners will have a harmful impact on the UK economy.
But it’s not just about the size of the funding pot – public investment in R&D has a “multiplier” effect that “crowds in” private sector investment. Only last month the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) highlighted the importance of public spending and public sector research organisations in supporting and leveraging private sector investment in R&D.
Commitment to the 3% target would set a tangible marker in party manifestos and provide a positive basis for post-election engagement on a long-term strategy for UK STEM.
The issue of STEM skills cannot be viewed in isolation from the challenges posed by Brexit. Science is an international endeavour and continued free movement of people is vitally important both to the public interest and the wider economy. EU nationals working in STEM professions make a critical contribution to their employing organisations, as Prospect’s 2016 survey demonstrated. More than seven in ten respondents (71%) reported that their organisations employ migrant workers from within the EU in STEM roles. All were clear that withdrawing this source of labour would jeopardise capacity, operational delivery and reputation.
As the reality starts to take shape, we recently retested members’ perceptions and experiences of the Brexit process. More than half believe that their jobs have become less secure and 17% think that their organisations do not have the skills necessary for Brexit work (with a further 55% unsure). Others accurately, but abhorrently, believe that they are being treated as bargaining chips.
Prospect will also be looking for commitments from the main parties to guarantee rights for EU nationals already working in the UK to remain here, something the Science and Technology Committee has called for clarity on. We also want reciprocal rights for UK scientists and engineers to work in other EU countries.
The rights of EU nationals working in UK science goes to the heart of what kind of innovation hub we want to be after Brexit. The UK is a world leader in scientific research and engineering, but that will be at risk if we get Brexit wrong.
The Brexit debate has barely touched on the importance of the regulatory infrastructure that underpins successful business and safe UK standards. A prime example is the European Medicines Agency, which is likely to relocate as a consequence of Brexit. This will have a direct impact on the 150 staff employed by the agency, as well as risk the leading edge enjoyed by the UK life sciences industry and a further 1,500 skilled jobs located in the south-east of England precisely because of the geographical proximity to the regulator.
I sincerely hope that the general election or its outcome will not stall the progress of industrial strategy. Proceeding with Brexit in the absence of a long-term strategy and implementation plan is a risk too far.