LibLink: Norman Lamb on the Government’s Industrial Strategy

Following the Government’s publication of its industrial strategy, Norman Lamb, who chairs the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, has let his feelings be known.

In a balanced and thoughtful piece, Norman places the proposals within the context of risks due to Brexit, and a potential funding gap whilst the economy recovers. He also notes that the investment has to be spread around the co7ntry more evenly;

We also need to make sure that this investment is dispersed around the country, promoting excellence in research in lower-income regions. Research in science and innovation has been over-centralised in the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and London, entrenching regional disparities in the wider economy.

He is supportive of the ambition outlined in the Industrial Strategy, but does not fail to spot where that ambition is not underpinned by substance;

The white paper promises extra spending on maths, digital and technical education, as well as a national scheme to support people to re-skill. Beyond this vague commitment, however, it fails to provide sufficient detail about how the Government will achieve a significant increase the uptake of STEM subjects in schools, technical colleges and universities. As with much of the rest of the strategy, the ambition is sadly not matched by the substance needed to prepare Britain for the industries of the future.

In truth, research and development costs, and it is best achieved in an environment where the best minds can freely exchange ideas and work together.

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  • Little Jackie Paper 11th Dec '17 - 10:48pm

    That Lamb article is pretty good, some food for thought there. But there is an interesting aside.

    I do wish politicians of ALL parties would be a bit more careful about the STEM debate echo-chamber. There is a very important debate to be had there for sure, but there is a very real nuance to the arguments which has been badly lost. There have been very significant increases in STEM take up, started under LAB, carried on by Coalition and continued beyond. To be clear I make NO partisan political point here.

    But if STEM is important (which it is) no one – students, educators or industry – is helped by a debate that lacks crucial nuances. Try here for example: There are others for other STEM disciplines.

    As I say, the Lamb article is a good contribution with good thoughts – he should nuance his thinking on STEM take up though. It matters. I’ve seen far too many students not read the small print. Politicians might be aiming in the right place, but they need more precision than has been the case so far.

    And, before everyone jumps on me…No, I’m not saying that STEM is pointless or whatever words you might want to put into my mouth. I’m saying we should have the debate about the real situation we have in STEM, not just internet talkboard received wisdom.

  • William Fowler 12th Dec '17 - 9:52am

    I would like to see both business rates and employer NI contributions replaced by a turnover tax on companies which could be based on the location and industry involved so a manufacturing company up north would pay a very low rate whilst a money lender in London would pay a much higher rate. Start-ups would not have to pay it for the first year or two.

    This would start to reflect the modern world of high tech, robot factories etc and encourage companies out of London and I would also like to see an online petition style option where companies that rip off the public would be loaded with a higher rate by popular vote, punishing the greedier capitalists. Surely this is the kind of radical tax reform that the LibDems should be calling for as an alternative to the nonsensical Nationalization gibberish of Labour or the way the Conservatives let big business rip off consumers.

    Actual govn involvement in starting industries has a disastrous history (how to make crap products at twice the cost of the free market) so needs to be avoided if at all possible.

  • I agree with William above that employers NI needs to be abolished and replaced with something more appropriate to the modern economy. Most discussions assume that the replacement of people by automation and AI is inevitable, whilst ignoring the fact that we currently chose to tilt the playing field against the employment of humans.

    Employers NI is a tax on employing people, who also cost money in terms of comfort facilites, holiday pay, insurance, protective equipment, pensions etc. Replace people with machines and you get tax breaks, write off the investment cost over many years, and maybe even qualify for Government grants.

    We need to level the playing field, and recognise that not employing people has a higher cost to society than employing them.

  • LJP makes a good point on the need to be careful of jumping to facile conclusions about STEM shortages (with an excellent link BTW). I have another theory.

    One mistake successive governments have made is trying to ‘push’ STEM when they should be adopting a ‘pull’ strategy. The difference is illustrated by the different experience of STEM in the City and in industry.

    My sense is that whichever discipline is seen as crucial to corporate success in a firm tends to establish itself as a kind of upper caste with top pay to attract the best talent. Lesser disciplines (as judged by the received wisdom) tend to be relegated to hewers of wood and drawers of water with correspondingly lower pay and status.

    Before Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’ deregulation, the City was allegedly staffed by public school ‘Hooray Henry’ types – very clubbable but sometimes barely numerate. The Big Bang blew that world away and highly numerate STEM graduates became key to success for many City firms (banks and others) with telephone number salaries to match.

    I’ve never heard a City firm complaining about a lack of STEM graduates – there is a strong ‘pull’.

    Contrast that with British industrial PLCs. For them ‘success’ from the board’s point of view is very much to do with reporting good results every quarter. From the shareholders’ POV (i.e. mainly City institutions) it’s about rising share prices; if that’s because of a takeover offer then so much the quicker/better. In this world it’s financial engineering to hit the shortest of short term targets that really matters; these firms are essentially just gambling chips for the London casino. STEM talent is secondary although some is needed to keep the lights on pending he next takeover.

    In this world, it’s rational to pay little for skills of peripheral importance so there is no ‘pull’.

    So, maybe the way to get better take-up of STEM subjects doesn’t lie with schools or government jaw-boning but with reform of the City.

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