Opinion: A ringfence is not enough for the science budget

The party has recently been trailing hints of the content and priorities of the new manifesto. One released last week was an announcement touting a ringfence of the science budget. They write:

The manifesto plans include ringfencing the science research budget and introducing a green innovation arm to the British Business Bank.

It’s great that the manifesto team have chosen to flag investment in science and innovation as a reason to vote Liberal Democrat in the 2015 general election, but what a meagre and unambitious announcement this was. One worrying sign is the wording mentioning only the ‘research budget’, which raises the concern that this ringfence might be a fig leaf hiding underspending in capital investment for science, as we saw in the early years of the current coalition government – though the 2014 budget went some way towards plugging the gap in capital spending in the sector.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) have already published an article highlighting their concerns of the gradual erosion of our research base after five years of flat-cash allocations. They also highlight the UK’s slipping position in the global rankings of investment in R&D, falling behind the EU average and spending only three-quarters as much as the OECD average (as a percentage of GDP) on research and development.

The United Kingdom consistently performs well in being able to ‘do more with less’ in research output, but much of this will be momentum gained in earlier periods of investment, with well-supported researchers choosing to settle and build teams in British institutions, not to mention the global dominance of the English language in science publishing and practice. Today, early-career researchers are too often given a better deal abroad, while strict migration controls discourage many talented scientists from joining British labs.

Naomi Weir, CaSE’s assistant director concludes:

If we’re serious about science, and want to reap the benefits of a healthy science and engineering sector we need to invest.

CaSE wants to see Parties committing to setting out a ten year framework for investment in science and engineering on an upward trajectory that AT LEAST matches growth

The Liberal Democrat party made that commitment in September 2012 by unanimously backing the party’s science policy paper ‘Developing a future: Policies for science and research’, which proposes a 3% increase, year on year, of both the research and capital science budget for the next 15 years. The paper also proposes removing international students from migration statistics as well as exempting individuals with a doctorate or chartered scientist status from settlement restrictions.

The Lib Dem manifesto team have clearly identified that distinguishing the party on science and research is a worthwhile message. If that is the case, they should highlight the distinctive policies backed by conference in 2012 rather than merely trailing more of the same.

* Ed Long is the chair of the Association of Lib Dem Engineers and Scientists and a local member of Tower Hamlets Lib Dems

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10 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 27th Aug '14 - 11:37am

    ‘The paper also proposes removing international students from migration statistics as well as exempting individuals with a doctorate or chartered scientist status from settlement restrictions.’

    Students (as distinct from graduates) I’d be inclined to agree with. However surely the rest should be conditioned by an actual shortage of skillsets? Otherwise isn’t this just open borders by the back door? If there is no shortage then there shouldn’t be an exemption. And for that matter any exemption should be time-limited. There is a much more nuanced story here.

    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/does-the-uk-really-need-more-engineers/2011723.article

  • Little Jackie Paper 27th Aug '14 - 12:44pm

    Ed – With respect,

    Paragraph 53 of that paper you link to appears to talk about exemptions, not streamlining. In fact I can’t see mention of a visa at all.

    I note that paragraph 51 blurs the distinction between student and graduate. Presumably you do not see a new graduate as a, ‘highly qualified expert?’

    Do you think that there is no problem with UK STEM unemployment?

  • @Little Jackie Piper – it’s not trivial to obtain a doctorate so it’s hardly “open borders”.

    Moreover science is international by its nature (a good lab may often have applicants from around the world), progression within it is attained largely through mobility (moving to where the best jobs are, regardless of state) and often requires hyperspecialised skills (not just a degree!). There’s a constant brain drain to and between the most successful countries (ones with good funding basically), none of which have a shortage of skills in general, which ultimately enriches the careers of those moving and of the labs that receive them.

    It’s a case study in the benefits of immigration and I’d support a sectorial loosening of the rules wholeheartedly. As a scientist myself.

  • jedibeeftrix 27th Aug '14 - 1:31pm

    “proposes a 3% increase, year on year, of both the research and capital science budget for the next 15 years.”

    I’ll support yours if you support mine:

    I propose a 1% increase, year on year, of both the defence capital and expenditure budgets for the next 15 years.

  • Ed, whilst I lack the time to have an indepth discussion on funding (where we can do better, but I feel you may be over-egging your cake to prove your point), but I do think that one of the key things you touch upon is the fact that our education system is failing to gear our youth towards the Sciences.

    We simply never make lessons such as Maths and the Sciences seem like they could lead to viable career options.

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