Will the government deliver when it comes to science?

As we enter 2020 with a new conservative government and the promise of Brexit on January 31st, many scientists are wondering what this will mean for science in the UK

As we enter 2020 with a new conservative government and the promise of Brexit on January 31st, many scientists are wondering what this will mean for science in the UK – especially when it comes to international collaboration. During the election campaign Boris Johnson, whose party won by a significant majority, was highly vocal in his support for UK science. However, in an era of “fake news” and systemic disinformation it is understandable that some remain sceptical. 

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) are an independent advocate for science and engineering, and during the election produced careful analysis on various parties’ manifestos and promises. Now that the Conservatives are in power and their work is well under way, how does what they’ve done so far match up to their promises, and the recommendations of CaSE for the things science in the UK needs to flourish? A summary of each party’s campaign promises for science and education can also be found provided by the Royal Society of Biology here, with the full list of the Conservative manifesto’s policies here.

One of the key affirmations of the Conservative’s campaign with regards to science – appearing in both their manifesto and in speeches by Boris Johnson – was to increase UK’s research intensity to 2.4% of GDP. This number isn’t plucked out of thin air; the 2.4% was agreed across party lines based on CaSE’s recommendations – as well as others. At the beginning of December, the Royal Society of Biology sent a letter to all party leaders making their recommendations for governmental science policy. Whilst we don’t have a budget from the government yet, numbers based on the costings document which accompanied the Conservative manifesto seem to fall a little short of this figure. The document pledges to increase research intensity to £14bn in 2023/24, whilst CaSE recommends that a government seeking the 2.4% target should be aiming for public investment to reach £17.5bn in 2023/24, with further increases beyond then. Nevertheless, this is still a significant increase in funding for research which will be welcome to UK science.

International collaboration was less well defined in the Conservative manifesto in the run-up to the election. Boris Johnson’s Brexit policy was made very clear – leaving the European Union by January 31st one way or the other. A glimmer of hope for those with EU collaborations was found in the manifesto, which stated “We will continue to collaborate internationally and with the EU on scientific research, including Horizon”. Further information on how this will look practically has not emerged, and whilst this position is open to interpretation with no clear guarantee, CaSE Executive Director Dr Sarah Main said “We look forward to working with the Government to make the case for full Horizon Europe association.”

Immigration was a key battleground in the election, and for true collaboration with Europe and the wider world, the passage of scientists into the UK is key. The conservative manifesto set out to move to an Australian ‘points-based’ system for immigration, where more highly skilled workers will be given less restrictive visas, with unskilled workers facing time-limited visas with no opportunity for applying for residence after. More restrictive borders are always of major concern for science, and CaSE has pledged to continue to work closely with the home office to ensure that a new system works the best it can for science and engineering in the UK.

There are many uncertainties in the months ahead for the UK, and we have passed through many months of uncertainty already with Brexit. The latest wave of a conservative government has made great promises for science in the UK. Now, only time can tell whether these promises are fulfilled.