The engineer's electioneer

Materials World magazine
,
1 Apr 2015

With the 2015 General Election almost here, Simon Frost looks at what the main parties claim they’ll do for STEM.  

It’s a tense moment for British politics. As Materials World goes to press, the Conservatives and Labour are close in the polls and neither is expected to attain an overall majority on 7 May. By now, you’ve probably had enough of ‘the most unpredictable election in a generation’, but it’s true – the only thing that the commentators agree on is that all signs point towards another hung parliament. It’s no two-horse race to form the next Government. Rather than speculate on who will hold the balance of power, we wondered, what are the parties saying about STEM?

Research and development

The UK Government is estimated to spend £1.5bln–£3.1bln a year on engineering research – 1.8% of the UK’s GDP. In comparison, the USA leads in global spending, allocating 2.8% of its GDP, while in Europe, Germany allocates 2.8% and France 2.3%. In 2011, the value of the UK’s engineering-related exported goods was £240bln – 48% of total exports. The UK turns relatively modest investment into significant output. ‘Look at the rates of growth in R&D spending in China and South Korea – these are strongly emerging economies that have backed science and engineering to the full, and I think we should do the same,’ says Professor Philip Nelson, CEO of the EPSRC. 

Nelson explains, ‘Around 10,000 scientists and engineers in the UK are deemed internationally excellent, capable of producing world-class research. Currently, we can only fund about half of those, but we could easily double the activity in this area and maintain the quality, which is the important thing. As another example, we’re very concerned about the state of university equipment, we’ve had around 160 bids from across the higher education sector and we felt the quality of around 100 of the claims was sufficient to fund them, but we could only afford to fund 30. These numbers keep coming up – we could fund an awful lot more and be doubly effective as a nation in this area.’

Rachel Williams, Professor of Ophthalmic Bioengineering at the University of Liverpool, concurs. ‘We know that funding put into engineering research results in impact both financially and societally. Many of the industrial partners we work with are SMEs or even micro-enterprises, so initiatives that can help them to collaborate with universities and translate novel research into new products and therapies could have significant benefits,’ she says. The Institution of Engineering and Technology recently called for Government to simplify access to business support for SMEs and increase support for business investment in innovation, while maintaining its investment in research and the UK science base. 

‘We get incredible value for the investment that we have. It’s less than some other countries but we get better “bang for the buck” for it, so we should retain that. If we reflect on the last four-and-a-half years, to have been able to protect the science revenue budget and increase the capital budget throughout the whole of the next parliament is a major achievement. We have the largest capital settlement we’ve ever had. Should we go further? Should we look to maximise the investment that we can in an area that will give rewards to all of us in society? Unambiguously, yes.’ 

Greg Clark MP,
Minister for Universities, Science and Cities

‘A long-term settlement for our universities, a long-term approach to both revenue and capital and, crucially, maximising our influence in Europe – these are all ways of lowering the risk to the future of the science budget, rather than putting a great deal of strong foundations at risk.’ 

Liam Byrne MP
Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills

‘We have one of the lowest rates of industrial R&D in Europe, but when [the Government] puts money in, it crowds in industrial research – there is a huge multiplier effect. We want a 15-year, 3%-above-inflation increase in a ring-fenced science budget – putting more money in because we know we’ll get more money out again.’ 

Julian Huppert MP,
Member of Parliament for Cambridge, former research scientist

‘We would see real benefit of having control over corporation tax, to use that in a targeted way to boost R&D, and to encourage investment in growth areas of the economy, rather than in a blanket way.’ 

Nicola Sturgeon,
Leader of the Scottish National Party

'Ring-fenced investment could avoid short-sighted budget decisions. We would guide overall strategic direction for public money, but research councils would decide on projects funded.’ 

Antonia Zenkevitch,
Green Parliamentary Candidate for Nottingham East

'The UK should have a long-term plan for increasing investment in R&D, and current investment is far too low.’ 

Victor Webb,
UKIP Parliamentary Candidate for Derby South

The skills gap

The shortage of skilled people entering engineering in the UK is well publicised. A greater uptake in STEM subjects at school level and up through the system into employability is essential. But engineering is a global industry, and international investment both in terms of finance and the migration of talented new engineers to the UK offer security for the future of the engineering industry as well. Rachel Williams says, ‘There are many highly qualified international students wishing to study in the UK, but the current immigration policy appears to discourage them. I believe we are potentially missing a rich source of highly talented people due to this.’ 

Ric Parker, Director of Research and Technology at Rolls-Royce warns, ‘The Government shoots itself in the foot on the subject of immigration and sends a very dangerous message to the rest of the world – we want your money but we don’t want your people. If we want inward investment, we need people to come here do their PhDs but also to stay on and work here once they’re done.’

‘My objective is to make the UK the world’s leading destination for overseas students to universities. We need to market ourselves, we need to send the message that people will have the warmest and most cordial of welcomes.’

Greg Clark MP

‘By 2025, Labour has promised to have as many young people going into apprenticeships as to university, raising levels to international standards.’

Daniel Zeichner, Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Cambridge

‘I think we need to reinvent and renew the post-study work visa system that I carefully designed when I introduced the point system under the last Government. Finding the right way to renew it, and allowing people through that visa to earn enough points for citizenship and settlement, are incredibly important.’

Liam Byrne MP

‘Post-study work visas should be there and we have to make sure that we are incredibly open, we encourage people to come in and make it easier. We should take students out of the net migration target.’ 

Julian Huppert MP, Member of Parliament for Cambridge, former research scientist

‘There needs to be a holistic approach towards engineering that brings together education, manufacturing and government, putting in place the frameworks to inspire young people from an early age. Then, to provide education through all stages, with support in the workplace through structured apprenticeships. And finally, support for R&D that will enable businesses to develop and market the ideas upon which a new, resurgent engineering industry can thrive.’

David Mclean,
Green Parliamentary Candidate for Newport East

‘Much more needs doing to increase the numbers of people with science and technology skills. This can only partly be achieved through education. We should also seek to significantly increase immigration of skilled people. The SNP is committed to this.’

Roger Mullin, 

SNP Parliamentary Candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath

‘There should be many incentives already in place to encourage Welsh people and the most talented people from overseas to work in Wales. In a step towards free further education, we will abolish fees for all students who stay in Wales to study medicine, science and technology. By targeting certain learners, we will stop the “brain drain” and secure the vital skills of those people that our economy requires for growth.’

Tim Thomas, Plaid Cymru Parliamentary Candidate for Ogmore

@MaterialsWorld: What would you like to see the next Govt do for STEM? @BreakerofThings: Support for public engagement, reinstate Research Council funding of studentships within specific projects, more ‘blue skies’ research.

To read more on political issues in UK science, visit the Campaign for Science and Engineering at www.sciencecampaign.org.uk