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UK needs to lift ambition on science

UK needs to lift ambition on science

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Britain is a world-leader on research and innovation.  From scientific excellence to business R&D, we have inquisitiveness in our DNA. Government leadership, however, has not always matched this endeavour.  So, at a time when Brexit is casting a shadow of uncertainty over the British economy, already held back by decades of underinvestment in skills, technology and infrastructure, a proactive industrial strategy is exactly what we need. 

Today saw the launch of the first of the government’s “sector deals” as set out in its long awaited industrial strategy. The new Sector Deal for the Life Sciences sets out a strategy backed by commitments from relevant departments, universities, charities and businesses. It makes sense to take a partnership approach to science and innovation.

For Prospect, representing over 50,000 members across the STEM professions, this is about championing the industries our members work in, and ensuring that we have the collaborative arrangements and funding to allow innovation to flourish.

The Sector Deals are a good idea. But the measure of their impact is in what they do, not just what they say.  Despite some welcome announcements, the life sciences deal fails to recognise the voice of its workforce or live up to economic potential of the sector.

We remain concerned at the lack of ambition in government plans to boost investment in R&D. The Government’s target, restated in the Industrial Strategy, is that the UK should be investing 2.4% of GDP in R&D by 2027. Even if the UK met this target, it would only take us to the average spend of the OECD. Indeed, the report on life sciences to Government from Sir John Bell,  which was the foundation of today’s plan, advocated a far more ambitious approach. It noted that “even with the new funding [announced by the Chancellor in Autumn 2016], the UK falls well behind competitors in R&D spend as a proportion of GDP”, and “it is essential that the UK grows support for R&D to achieve a level which is in the top quartile of OECD countries. This would be approximately 2.6% of GDP over the next 5 years.”

Meanwhile the hard data on annual R&D expenditure by private sector pharmaceutical firms, as set out by ONS figures updated last month, shows that this fell in real terms by over a billion pounds – or 25% - over the last five years. With the risks of Brexit, and impending departure of the European Medicines Agency, private and public sector R&D expenditure should be higher.

One of the most prominent announcements from BEIS – a new research facility in London planned by Merck – was already “announced” last week, and has been subject to the “clarification” that just 150 new jobs will be created as a result, not the 950 that some early accounts suggested.

The sector deal also raises a wider concern about the role of public science in what economists call the “ecology” of innovation. Over-reliance on private partners seeking short-term commercial returns can squeeze out the “blue skies” research that is the foundation of big advances. At worst could it put strains on the integrity and ethics that good science depends on, if too many jobs, careers and institutions are dependent on corporate interests. We need high-quality, well-funded public science at the heart of our innovation plans. The alternative risks making us too reliant on the private sector. For example, the sector deal highlights a further allocation of £210m (from already announced funds) to “early diagnostics” research. But signs so far are that this funding is likely to be channelled towards private firms rather than bolstering the public sector research capacity.

And, as with similar recent promises of money for areas like Artificial Intelligence or telecoms, it is far from clear whether the sums are of a sufficient scale to truly transform Britain’s ability to take part in the technological revolutions now sweeping the global economy.

One of the big omissions from the sector deal is a clear answer on EU collaboration post-Brexit. Reiterating proposals to change “Tier 2” immigration rules don’t begin to resolve the questions facing the lower paid researchers and technicians from the EU who are currently a critical part of the UK workforce – as leading research institutions warned this week. Nor does it assess the impact of the imminent relocation of the European Medicines Agency from London to Amsterdam, which as well as having an immediate effect on UK jobs is expected to have further knock-on effects for the sector.

Similarly, the sector deal is silent how on scientists, researchers and workers should be listened to or involved, whether that is through their unions or other forms of engagement. For such a collaborative sector it is bizarre that the voice of the workforce should be ignored. For it is the researchers, technicians and other expert workers in an industry like life sciences that can provide the best check and challenge to the inevitable tendencies of politicians and corporations to turn industrial strategy into mere spin and PR, and the risks that one of the UK’s most valuable economic strengths will be compromised or damaged by political or commercial agendas.

That’s why Prospect supports the TUC’s call for a stronger role for workers and the their trade union representatives in the national and sectoral institutions which will be central to the success of any industrial strategy. And it is why Prospect will work to ensure that the views and aspirations of its members working in the pharmaceuticals, life sciences and wider research-based sectors are properly heard in this debate.

Martin McIvor

Martin McIvor


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