Despite the hot weather there was “standing room only for science” according to Chi Onwurah MP at the 30th anniversary of Parliamentary Links Day, the 10th event in this series to be opened by Speaker of the House of Commons Rt Hon John Bercow MP.
This year’s theme was Science and the Industrial Strategy and the room was abuzz and full to capacity: Prime Minister Theresa May sent remarks and congratulations on the timely theme, and importance of this event on the Parliamentary calendar.
The phrase ‘industrial strategy’ may have first been coined by Labour in the 1960s and has not always been popular among UK governments, arguably due to the implications it holds for Government intervention in the activity of UK businesses. However, in 2016 Prime Minister Theresa May brought the term back into general circulation with the formation of the Government department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Since then, the Government has been working on putting their strategy onto paper, and into action.
How does the Government produce a strategy? After a period of community consultation and debate in Parliament surrounding specific areas in which the Government feels that new or improved legislation is required, a Green Paper is produced – a preliminary report of proposals used to stimulate discussion.
Once published, suggestions are open to scrutiny through public consultation and debate from which responses are then fed into the next phase – publication of a White Paper – issued by Government as statement of policy. From here, contents may be disputed prior to the production of a bill, which is then deliberated in the House of Commons. Subject to amendments and approval, this eventually passes into law.
“Building a Britain fit for the future”, the long awaited November 2017 release of the White Paper, outlined a long term plan for Government investment in the skills, industries and infrastructure required to better transform the UK economy.
The strategy sets four Grand Challenges – specific areas where increased support should act to boost UK productivity: artificial intelligence and data; clean growth; mobility for people, goods and services; and innovation to meet the needs of an ageing society. Despite some negative response, the publication has generally been welcomed by the science community.
It is important that these “challenges” be realised as innovation opportunities. These will sit in place alongside a pledge for increased investment in research and development (R&D), equating to 2.4 percent of GDP by 2027. This will put the UK in line with the average OECD figure, however may not be ample enough to remain competitive with other world leaders post EU exit.
Whilst the UK harbours a fundamentally strong economy, it has one of the most regionally unbalanced within Europe, with 45 percent of university R&D spending allocated to the south east “golden triangle”.
Given that UK productivity, trade balance and investment linger behind nearly all major nation competitors, it is important that scientists question how they can make community better for the worse off.
An underlying theme highlighted by many speakers at #LinksDay18 is the need to continue challenging diversity and representation in science, and as voiced by Dr Patrick Vallance: “professional scientists ought to represent the demographics of society”.
There is no doubt the younger generation have a significant role to play, but educational policy alone is not the sole solution. Few pathways exist to maintain quantitative skills at a basic level.
This is somewhat worrisome given the uncertainty of Brexit and the future stance on immigration and Tier 2 visa caps not yet apparent.
A lack of relevant skills is sadly commonplace, particularly among an increasingly populous ‘ageing society’. Employers must learn to recognise the skills of their technical workers and make the most of a readily available talent pool.
An urgent overhaul in national strategy is needed to promote regional growth and investment, and reskilling support must focus on STEM subjects.
With demand for healthcare services and food production ever on the rise, and a need to reduce our environmental impacts, there is an ever expanding need for innovative data usage, and development of precision technologies. Policy areas directly impacting the scientific sector must be complementary to a coherent Industrial Strategy in order for it to prove successful.
#LinksDay18 was a wonderful example of STEM communities and Government representatives coming together as one voice, providing scope for effective and impactful change based on sound evidence.
Activity on this front continues. Check out the Government webpages for more.