Chris Skidmore: If “Global Britain” wants to succeed, it must increase its spending on innovation and research

11 Jun

Chris Skidmore was Universities Minister twice between 2018-2020, and is Co-Chair of the All Party Group on Universities and Chair of the Res Publica Lifelong Education Commission. He is MP for Kingswood.

Boris Johnson knows that narratives matter. Levelling up, taking back control, building back better may seem slogans, but they point to a vision of a post-Brexit Britain that is free to renew itself for the 21st century.

Central to that vision is also the UK as a “global science superpower”, a phrase first coined by the Prime Minister in 2019, yet which now has more than a ring of truth in its utterance when we look at the UK’s commitment to investing in research to uncover a Covid vaccine, and as a result to continue to lead the world in its vaccination programme.

It’s clear from his arrival for this weekend’s G7 meeting in Cornwall that the vision of Britain as a global centre for science and technology remains undimmed. The Prime Minister chose to showcase the UK’s future horizontal space launch site at Newquay on his arrival in Cornwall— made possible thanks to a multi-million pound government investment in partnership with Virgin Orbit, in a few years’ time, space launch into low earth orbit will be a reality, and along with vertical launch sites at Sutherland and the Shetlands, promises to give the UK the first launch base in Europe.

Yet when it comes to overall spending on science, research and innovation, if we look at the other countries attending the G7, and compare the UK’s current investment, both in terms of total investment but also as a proportion of GDP, we need lift off soon.

Currently the UK spends around 1.7 per cent of its GDP on R&D. Yet the US and China are heading towards three per cent GDP, Japan spends 3.2 per cent, Germany is planning to reach four per cent. Only Italy and Canada are behind the UK in terms of R&D investment in the G7. Outside of this group, other countries are pushing even faster still. South Korea is already at 4.5 per cent and Israel higher still at 4.9 per cent.

Of course the Government has committed to spend 2.4 per cent GDP by 2027 on R&D — what was the OECD average back in 2017 — indeed the recent government commitment to double public R&D spending to £22 billion by 2024/25 has certainly given the commitment a boost. Yet by the time we reach July 13 in a few weeks time, 2027 is just 2,000 days away. Four years have so far past, with R&D activity having only risen around 0.2 per cent of GDP in this period. With five and a half years to go, we cannot afford to continue on the same trajectory. Even the OECD average that was the benchmark for the 2.4 per cent strategy has risen to probably over 2.6 per cent.

We only need to look ahead at the pack pulling ahead in this global technological race. Joe Biden has already placed research and innovation at the centre of his “building back better” strategy. In March 2021, The White House announced that as a part of its American Jobs Plan, it was requesting Congress to authorise $180 billion in federal investment designed to advance US leadership in critical technologies and American research.

It’s clear why R&D is the industry of choice. According to a 2020 report by Breakthrough Energy on the Impacts of Federal R&D Investment on the US Economy, if the federal government were to increase its investment into R&D to at least one per cent of GDP by 2030, then that investment would support 3.4 million jobs. Additionally, this continued investment would be projected to add $478 billion in activity to the American economy with a projected $81 billion in tax revenue windfall.

As the United States seeks to increase its investment into innovations driven by R&D, the German government has also pledged to both increase its tax allowance for companies investing in research, but also increase its central funding to the tune of €2.5 billion. This investment is specifically designed to target funding for electricity mobility, battery cell production and safe charging infrastructure. Additionally, the German government has announced that it was looking to provide a €1 billion bonus programme targeting “forward-thinking” manufacturers and suppliers, specifically in the automotive industry. In 2018 alone, the German government invested the staggering sum of €105 billion into R&D.

Elsewhere, China also announced a serious increase in R&D investment during the Fourth Plenary Session of the 13th National People’s Congress in March 2021. The announcement that it will be increasing investment in R&D by more than seven per cent every year over this Five-Year Plan, with expenditure on basic research rising by 10.6 per cent in 2021 alone. These investments are yet another signal that China is seeking to dramatically increase its domestic technologies such as for example artificial intelligence, quantum information, semiconductors, biotechnology and deep space capabilities, most of which are currently dependent on international suppliers.

In the wake of the pandemic, with many economies and sectors seeking to innovate and change their working practices, to reform their business, now is the time to double down on R&D investment, especially when we recognise where the rest of the world is heading. Even I have come to doubt whether 2.4 per cent, the OECD average at the present time, will be sufficient for the scale of change that is coming in the 2020s and into the 2030s.

The success of “Global Britain” now depends on matching countries that have transformed their economies towards innovation and research. I would now go further— and suggest if we wish to keep up with our G7 colleagues, the forthcoming Innovation Strategy should set a definite timetable for three per cent, and beyond to 3.5 per cent of GDP being spent on R&D. To fail to achieve this in contrast to the other major world economies be setting ourselves up to fail.

Chris Skidmore: Student finance? It’s the interest rate, stupid.

17 May

Chris Skidmore was Universities Minister twice between 2018-2020, and is Co-Chair of the All Party Group on Universities and Chair of the Res Publica Lifelong Education Commission. He is MP for Kingswood.

News that there is to be a consultation on the fee level for university suggests that proposals in the Augar Review to reduce the annual fee level for university courses to £7,500 are back on.

Ever since the Office for National Statistics judgement in 2018 that student debt would need to be classified as part of the Government’s debt, the move to reduce the amount owed by students has been viewed as an attractive means of reducing this eye-watering burden in the future – especially with the student loan book estimated to rise from £140 billion in 2020 to £560 billion by the middle of the century.

Yet for every policy change, there are both winners and losers. Effective government is about ensuring the losses do not counteract the perceived gains. Reducing fees and, in turn, the total amount that universities can spend on course provision will place the sustainability of many university courses under scrutiny.

Science degrees cost more than the current £9,250 a year to provide, with most being subsidised by arts, humanities and social science degrees. Unless careful thought is given to the impact of the unit of resource, what seems an attractive headline offer might in fact backfire – especially if it results in a loss of opportunity for future students in regions of the country who find that their local university is no longer able to provide the course provision they wish, not only in the arts and humanities, but in science degrees, too.

In addition, out of the current fee level, universities themselves invest around over £800 million a year in improving access and participation from some of the lowest socio-economic groups to attend university. With a reduction in fees, there is also a risk that the ability to reach out to the most disadvantaged in society is also reduced.

This is not to say that a rebalancing of fees, especially if we want to create an effective tertiary ecosystem which allows learners to move between further and higher education, cannot work. Indeed universities should be preparing for this realignment and in addition should work with the government to help deliver more Level Four and Five course provision and Higher Technical Education, which I believe they are well placed to do as anchor institutions in their local communities. Just look at the work of Nottingham Trent University and their partnership with Mansfield College, or London Southbank University’s work on apprenticeships and skills.

But if we are to reduce university fees, then there is also an important policy lever which the Government should also be looking to change, which I believe would have far greater impact on individual lives— and in turn far greater support. To paraphrase James Carville, when it comes to higher education funding, it’s the interest rate, stupid. We need to look again at the interest rate charged on student loans, which any student or parent will tell you is out of all proportion to the reality of current interest rates.

Particularly there is to be an expansion of student finance into wider post-18 education, involving not only university but further education and modular flexible courses, the issue of the interest rate on student ‘loans’ must be looked at. At 5.6 per cent, even with the taper, it remains out of all proportion with the current 0.25 per cent rate.

Now, with this debt placed on the Government’s balance sheet following the ONS decision, a revaluation of the interest rate for student loans would seem sensible, for the Government’s twin goals of improving access to education and to address the actual size of the debt owed itself.

The current situation is also entrenching unfairness, preventing students from low-income backgrounds from ever getting out of their debt trap. Yes, they may not have to pay their student loan back until they earn more than £26,500, yet this in itself is a cap on aspiration – potentially trapping these students in median earning jobs for the rest of their lives, for the fear of paying back their student debt.

Even if students begin to pay off their debt, the interest rate, as it currently stands, results in them either never paying off their loan, or ending up paying back over double what their actual degree cost.

Currently, for an individual in higher education on Plan Two with £50,000 worth of debt, even with a graduate starting salary of £28,500, rising to £56,900 over 30 years, they will never pay off their loan – with the eventual interest rate of 5.6 per cent accruing eventual debt of £113,000.

Never mind that they would never pay off their debt, having seen it cancelled after reaching the repayment threshold of 30 years: the eye-watering fact is that interest itself becomes 68 per cent of the total debt.

This begins to kick in even as the student is studying and unable to make repayments: last year, a third-year student will have had £1680 added to their existing debt through the application of interest alone. By contrast, students from wealthy backgrounds can pay off their loan immediately, with no debt interest repayments to face, resulting in the wealthier getting a cheaper university degree.

Further to this, the Sutton Trust has demonstrated that for the most deprived 40 per cent of students, average debt is nearly £52,000, compared to £38,400 for the top 20 per cent, driven by access to maintenance loans. Maintenance loans now make up £7 billion of the £17 billion borrowed each year, up from £5 billion four years ago.

Returning to a system of means-tested grants rather than loans accruing further debt would help encourage learners to access post-18 education, particularly for those from backgrounds for which debt, regardless of how it actually accrues and whether it is paid off, will be viewed as a disincentive and a barrier to reskill.

At the same time, we should be investigating new methods of funding reskilling and upskilling. The success of research and development tax credits in generating this activity points to an opportunity for how companies could be rewarded for investing in the human capital of their employers, especially given the opportunity to close the productivity gap that lifelong learning might offer.

I am currently investigating all of these issues as part of the Lifelong Education Commission, which I have established with Phillip Blond at Res Publica, which will be producing a series of reports on how we can reform our education system to remove barriers to learning.

Just as we need to look again at what barriers within the learning system, whether legislative or regulatory, qualification based, or institutional, are preventing increased access to educational opportunity, or the need to look again at the opportunities for change that technology and remote learning can provide, so too we will need to address what is, and always will be, the greatest barrier to uptake: finance.

Taking the opportunity to address interest rates now, what is one of the greatest perceived injustices in the student finance system, could be a potential game changer, delivering fairer education provision and achieving universal support.

Chris Skidmore: ARIA has to be just the start of a sea-change in British attitudes towards research

23 Mar

Chris Skidmore is MP for Kingswood and was Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister 2018-19 and 2019-20.

The 10 September 2008 was a watershed moment for science: the moment that protons were first recorded circulating the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.

Dubbed ‘Big Bang Day’ by the BBC – who gave over an entire day’s coverage on BBC Radio 4 to the event, holding their live studio in the control room of the Swiss laboratory = it was to mark the moment that particle physics entered the public imagination.

Ok, perhaps it wasn’t a Neil Armstrong moment, and maybe you can’t quite remember where you were at the time. I can, however. Squeezed into Michael Gove’s small Portcullis House office, I sat at my desk where I would be pouring over education statistics looking to devise stories out of Labour’s failed record on free school meals pupils, exclusions, standards or similar.

I wasn’t even aware of what was happening at CERN, if it were not for the figure three feet away from me pushing his chair back and swivelling around in triumph.

‘Chris, look at this— they’ve done it’ or similar words, ‘This is going to change everything’. Again, the memory is hazy, but what isn’t is the recollection I have of my colleague, Dominic Cummings, reacting to the news that these tiny particles having been beamed around a 27-kilometre track. ‘If there’s one thing that government should always be funding, it’s this. This kind of research is what government is there for’.

Eleven years on, then, I knew when Cummings entered Downing Street that science and research would take on a greater role, and far greater significance than ever before. Indeed I wasn’t wrong. Within six months, an election brought with it a manifesto commitment to massively increase taxpayer-funded research from £9 billion a year to £19 billion annually by 2024/25. If this wasn’t beyond my wildest expectations as Science Minister, this later figure was increased further to £22 billion by the time of Rishi Sunak’s first budget. That manifesto also brought with it an additional commitment:

“We will set up a British Advanced Research Projects Agency. We will invest £800 million over five years for a new research institution in the style of the US ARPA, which funds high-risk, high-reward research that might not otherwise be pursued, to support blue skies research and investment in UK leadership in artificial intelligence and data.”

The ill-fated ‘BARPA’ has now perhaps wisely morphed into ARIA – the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency – legislation for which receives its second reading today. It is, I believe, an important watsershed moment for British science and research, just as the UK’s decision to be one of the founder members of CERN was in 1983. No one can deny the enormous benefits that CERN has brought to computer science over the past four decades, not least contributing to the invention of the world wide web and touch screen computing.

CERN’s international importance is one which British science continues to benefit from, which is why we still contribute £144 million a year to the project. In contrast, the £800 million set aside for the UK’s new funding agency seems meagre in comparison – yet it has the potential to be as transformative as CERN has been.

Why do we need a new funding agency? What’s wrong with UKRI, the national funding agency established in 2017?

I was often asked such questions as the Science Minister who fielded questions on the advent of the ‘UK ARPA’ in both the Commons and Select Committees. I was clear then that the agency would need to be free of any constraints, sitting outside UKRI, though it seemed at the time that commentators were keener to project upon the proposed agency their own vision of what the British ARPA should or should not be.

For months, I had to keep repeating that we weren’t looking at a ‘DARPA’ model, the later defence and mission-orientated model that ARPA in the USA later became, but the earlier 1960s version, based upon programme managers with much greater freedom to commission research.

And so it seems freedom, rightly, has won the argument. Legislation is needed to give ARIA the freedoms it needs to operate outside normal constraints placed upon public agencies, together with giving it security in legislation to exist for at least ten years without fear of being abolished by ministerial whim, another considerable danger faced by any project established in BEIS.

If ARIA is going to be established, if it is to achieve anything, it needs security in survival, and certainty that it’s remit won’t be tied down in red tape or Whitehall bureaucracy.

We don’t know, or have any idea what ARIA will achieve: yet that is at the very essence of why it must focus on blue skies, discovery-led, research, rather than some set ‘mission’ or ‘moonshot’ binding its hands. As CERN has shown, technologies that do not even yet exist will in turn be discovered, either by design or accident— no government can predict this, apart from to believe that if the right investment is made, the ‘build it and they will come’ principle applies.

What we must have, call it a leap of faith or confidence in our scientists and researchers, is a new cultural understanding that failure not only happens, but that failure is a vitally important tool in the learning and research process. This is an anathema in Whitehall, where in the past the costs of perceived success have been great, yet we all need to learn the lessons of ARPA and believe in the upward trajectory that failure can take us.

Many of ARIA’s projects will fail. There will be accusations that money has been wasted. People will walk away. Funding will need to be turned off projects. All this will happen. But the knowledge and lessons learned will be vast. High risk is exactly that – yet even its failures need to be recognised as having value.

Equally, for all the media commentary on what ARIA will or will not be, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. When it comes to seeing the wood for the trees, ARIA is a single tree in a forest of research that needs careful management. The total budget for ARIA, at £800 million over five years, is less than one per cent of the total planned budget for research and development in the UK.

To obsess over ARIA, important though it’s mission will become, would be a mistake, especially when the Prime Minister has gone to Harold Wilson-like strides to set out his White Heat equivalent vision for science and technology – the Blue Flame of research and innovation, perhaps.

ARIA is totemic of a wider, much more vast shift in R&D investment and activity that needs to define the 2020s. In the Integrated Review, Boris Johnson  recently recommitted the government to spending 2.4 per cent of GDP on research and development by 2027. Other countries, as I’ve written before, are significantly outpacing us, and if we are to keep up even with the OECD average, there is no alternative to increasing our research spending if we wish to be a modern knowledge and technology based economy.

ARIA can help to drive a culture change in how we perceive research and development, with the need to accept failure as a part of delayed success, but this is a cultural change which needs to take place across the whole of society, particularly in business and our SMEs, if we are to succeed at raising private R&D spend (which makes up two thirds of the 2.4 per cent target).

We are currently lagging behind at 1.8 per cent, with little more than 300 weeks until 2027: with the US and Germany already nearing three per cent, South Korea 4.5 per cent and Israel 4.9 per cent, it is a target which, unlike an ARIA research project, we cannot afford to fail.

Chris Skidmore: Global Britain must lift its gaze beyond the sunlit uplands to the stars – and beyond

14 Feb

Chris Skidmore MP was Space Minister between 2018-19 and 2019-20, and is MP for Kingswood

The history of Britain’s involvement in space in past decades is a chequered one, following an all too familiar tale when it comes to innovation: we set an early lead, only to falter, be overtaken by other countries, and then decided to pull up stumps and disinvest entirely in our fledgling space programme.

In recent years, however, the UK has sought to transform its activity in space. We have not only established the UK Space Agency, but we are on track to creating the first horizontal launch site in Newquay, Cornwall, and vertical launch sites in Sutherland and on the Shetland Isles.

The creation of the Satellite Applications Catapult has seen major investment in ensuring we have better self-sufficiency in space, with a £100 million satellite testing centre nearly ready to open. Boris Johnson has demonstrated his commitment to the UK investing in space, renewing our subscription to the European Space Agency with our largest ever investment of £1.9 billion over four years, and the EU Deal agreed ensures that we remain part of the Copernicus satellite earth observation programme, which UK companies helped to build.

The Prime Minister’s commitment to space is a key part of renewing the UK’s sovereign capabilities. Every element of our modern society and economy relies on space and its presence and critical importance in our everyday lives is perhaps underestimated or even misunderstood.

Space is the one of the UK’s top 13 Critical National Infrastructure sectors, and is in the top ten of risks faced by the UK. From monitoring climate change to ensuring real time financial transactions and from supporting our Armed Forces through secure communications to helping planes land safely, satellites are at their heart. Space now plays an essential enabling role in our modern way of life. UK Space estimates that some £300 billon of economic output globally is enabled by satellite enabled data.

This space-based order though is under threat. The Government’s Blackett Review suggested a loss of £1 billion a day to the UK economy from loss of GPS signal. Given space is becoming more contested and congested from malicious actors, our vulnerability to something going wrong in space is exponentially increasing.

90 per cent of the space assets we rely on are foreign owned and operated. Space debris is on the rise due to a massive increase in smaller, low orbit, satellites, and we are probably not far away from a catastrophic collision. Skills shortages are accelerating, yet the gap between integrating civil and military space capabilities needs to be closed urgently for our national wellbeing.

The UK has a specialist lead in many areas of the modern space economy, such as in small satellites, satellite communications, space services, data science and could realistically double its share of the global market by 2030 to some £30 billion. I saw for myself as Space Minister the massive opportunity we have to invest in space, and really place the UK on the international map, creating tens of thousands of new jobs in the process. The UK has a wealth of cutting-edge SMEs, strong institutions such as the Catapult and Leicester Space Park and strong global industrial champions such as Team Athena which already employs 40,000 people, 10,000s more in the supply chain and exports to over 80 countries from a UK base.  

Yet we need to offer this innovation to the world by establishing new marketplaces. This can only be done by building on the strong recent developments previously mentioned, many of which I was proud to be part of. What we need is a coherent and integrated space strategy and a set of programmes that underpin this.  

The new National Space Council is nearly a year old, but has only met properly once and still needs clear terms of reference, along with the publication of a National Space Strategy and the establishment of a Strategic Space Command. The Spending Review outlined some ambitious plans, but the Integrated Review during the coming weeks is the chance to set out further detail on the UK’s wider plans for space. Meanwhile, the development of a Government Procurement Fund for space services and a fully funded National Space Innovation Fund would go some way to a more integrated approach based on national need.

Commitment to some core anchor programmes, potentially in a sovereign Position, Navigation and Timing and secure satellite communications, through a National Space Operations Centre, a Space Domain Awareness delivery vehicle and a National Space Academy would be offers to the world.

If we want to lead at COP26 and offer a new technology solution to anchor the summit, space-based earth observation and climate change monitoring programmes must be developed. We would be leading by creating or own capabilities, backed up by a world-class regulatory and enabling environment, together with dedicated delivery agencies, while offering export and collective security opportunities to the world.

We already know our Five Eyes Allies, NATO partners and like-minded democracies want and expect the UK to lead in space. It can also be a strong offering to our European partners as we seek to shape our new relationship. These are not easy decisions but with a desire to decide the capability we want and then the structures to act on it, our space leadership is at a crossroads, for which the right turning can be an easy one, if we chose to take it.  

Post-Brexit, 2021 is the year when the UK has the opportunity to establish itself as an independent sovereign nation on the international stage. Our Presidency of the G7 and hosting of COP26 provide no better chance than to outline how we intend to achieve this. If we are seeking agendas for post-Brexit Britain, then we must not forget to look up beyond the sunlit uplands and into the skies and beyond. It is time that we took the UK’s involvement in space seriously.  By seizing our moment in space, there is no better way of the UK demonstrating its belief in those famous words, per ardua ad astra.

Chris Skidmore: Britannia Unchained revisited. How to build on vaccine success – and make Britain a science superpower

2 Feb

Chris Skidmore is MP for Kingswood and was Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Having finally left the EU, 2021 is the year when the UK gets to define its role among the international community as an independent sovereign nation.

Four weeks in, signs are already emerging of how that independence matters: already the UK’s ability to strike its own deals over Covid vaccines seems to have paid dividends, with more people vaccinated in the UK than the rest of Europe combined. Freed from any additional bureaucracy set on the continent, Britain has been able to approve and procure vaccines at a faster pace, allowing for its vaccination programme to become one of the world’s leaders.

This isn’t intended to gloat; in a global pandemic, we need to ensure that every country has fair and equitable access to vaccine supplies to treat their most vulnerable patients. Merely an observation that the freedom to diverge is already making a clear difference when it comes to innovation. And it is innovation, science, and research that the UK can now really fashion as its USP and make our mark in the global world.

Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a chapter in Britannia Unchained on how we should look to Israel for developing an innovation rich economy – not only through investment in research, but in its ability to back the ‘buccaneer’ innovators, giving them the freedom to innovate, but equally, and crucially, the freedom to fail.

Ten years on, Israel’s success at being truly world leading by a country mile in rolling out its own vaccine demonstrates the power of having a technologically advanced economy that is able to be agile and adapt at scale.

We still have some way to go. Having committed to spending 2.4 per cent of our GDP on R&D by 2027, we are still hovering around the 1.8 per cent mark, compared to three per cent in the US or China, 4.5 per cent in South Korea, and to little surprise, 4.9 per cent in Israel. Yes, we have some of the most research-intensive universities in the world, and with one per cent of the global population we are still responsible for nearly 15 per cent of all research citations. Yet others globally are catching up fast.

This is the global race that matters. ‘Britannia Unchained’ can only happen if we give our innovators, researchers, new start up businesses, our scientists, and indeed our universities, the freedom and the investment to build back – not just better, but an entirely new economy that meets 21st-century needs by backing the new technologies of the future.

Boris Johnson well knows this. He has made Britain as a ‘global science superpower’ a centrepiece of his vision for the UK, right from the start of his leadership campaign. And so far he has delivered in spades investment for R&D: not only is government spending on it expected to rise from £12 billion per annum in 2019 to £24 billion by 2025, but we have seen major commitments from the Prime Minister to invest in huge new science and research infrastructure projects such as offshore wind, carbon capture and storage plants, and perhaps my favourite, a new fusion nuclear reactor, the Spherical Tokamak Energy Plant.

It gets too little commentary in the media, but Johnson has also demonstrated his ability to understand science and research is a truly global, international endeavour. New visa rules have been created to attract international scientists to the UK, along with waiving nationality rules around research grants. For all the concern amongst the research sector that Brexit would lead to Britain departing from European research projects, the deal that the Prime Minister struck went far beyond what many had expected or even hoped: association into Horizon Europe, the flagship research scheme from which the UK is the second largest beneficiary, to membership of the satellite earth observation programme, Copernicus.

And when it comes to space technology, Johnson chose not only to continue the UK’s membership of the European Space Agency, ESA (nothing to do with the EU incidentally) but also to increase our investment to a record £1.9 billion over four years.

What does this all have to do with 2021 in particular? With the UK’s presidency of the G7, together with our hosting of the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow this November, science and research can be a central part of Britain’s international leadership. It’s not yet two years ago since, as energy minister at the time, I signed net zero carbon emissions by 2050 into law — making the UK the first G7 country to do so. Yet in this space of time, the UK’s leadership on this issue has seen many countries such as France, South Korea, and now this month the USA, follow our lead.

This year, we can do the same. Not merely in climate change, where we have a real opportunity to set new national reporting targets, but in new technologies and science itself.

With a new American President that believes in the power of science and research, the Prime Minister has found an ally and common ground upon which he can transform into a special science relationship. Focus on ‘shared values’ is intended to be a key part of the G7— what better value could there be to focus upon than investment in research and innovation?

A new international research fund, a new alliance of research universities, the chance to forge new international science programmes dedicated to transforming and de-carbonising energy supply… the potential is enormous. Yes, we can build back better, but we can do so much more effectively if we research back better too.

Chris Skidmore: Thinking, fast and slow. Why we need a long-term Education Recovery Plan.

20 Jan

Chris Skidmore is a former Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister between 2018-2020, and is MP for Kingswood.

As the first few weeks of 2021 pass in lockdown, looking depressingly like 2020, many parents will be struggling attempting to juggle working full-time remotely with home schooling their children. As I write this, for instance, I’m sitting on the floor of my son’s bedroom, attempting to be as far away as possible from the alternate shouting and screams of three children six and under. Thankfully, today is my turn to catch up on the work I’ve missed. Over the past few days, instead I’ve been immersed in the Night Pirates, Number Blocks, phonics, reading and handwriting tasks, maths, comprehension, in what seems a never-ending timetable of tasks.

My guilt at never seeming to be able to teach the work set each day is matched only by my admiration for my children’s teachers who seem to have assembled a vast array of lessons, videos and materials at short notice— and whose talent for engaging children is clearly a vocation. A talent which I’m increasingly coming to suspect that I am lacking in. Those that can, teach, those that can’t… well, become Tory MPs perhaps.

It’s clear that despite my best efforts, my own children aren’t getting the expert educational experience that I know they would had they been at school. I’m sure it’s a worry and concern of every parent — especially for those who in these trying circumstances simply don’t have access to laptops or digital equipment to even complete the tasks set of them.

While it is right that there has been a clear focus on ensuring disadvantaged students and those affected by digital poverty don’t miss out on an education, however, we must recognise that every pupil of every age will be scarred by the pandemic. Too much learning has been lost, and too many children will find their educational outcomes affected, to simply return to business as usual. It’s why we need to start thinking now about a long-term education recovery plan for our entire education system — one that encompasses early years to universities and beyond.

To start with, we must start think long-term about the scale of the challenge now. We cannot afford to simply react to events, waiting to see what happens with the spread of the virus and its containment, before we decide the next stages of an entire generation’s future. The impact of the pandemic will emerge like the widening ripples in a pond when a stone has been thrown: its impact, in particular its educational impact, will be with us for years, a fact which we must come to terms with and have a strategic plan to help counter.

Already the Chair of the Education Select Committee and educational leaders have called for a redesign of the examination system. What is needed foremost, however, is a definitive understanding of the outcomes that we wish to achieve, before moving onto the processes to deliver this.

Most importantly, is perhaps the recognition that with the Key Stage assessments abandoned for this year, we will urgently need a system by which we can monitor individual pupil progress, so that pupils at risk of educational failure due to the pandemic can be rescued as quickly as possible, and given the individual support and tuition that they need to get back on track. This should be viewed as the critical mission. Identifying those pupils at risk of educational disadvantage means new forms of assessment, and data collection, will need to be considered. Above all, there must be transparency and a common approach to what is being measured.

Another key part of a long-term education recovery plan should also be the curriculum in schools. Not to change the curriculum, but to provide all schools with the ability to teach a “Recovery Curriculum”. I’ve seen already some fantastic work taking place in my own local authority, South Gloucestershire, which is modelling a Recovery Curriculum based on the experiences of New Zealand schools after the earthquake there. Before lockdown, this had resulted in improved attendance and dramatic recoveries in reading and writing abilities of pupils whose learning had been affected during the first lockdown. Best practice is out there, lead by some truly inspiring teachers— the strategic question that must be answered is how can this best practice be spread and incentivised, and monitored to encourage all teachers to engage in these forms of learning.

Then there is the thorny question of educational outcomes. I’m cautious about re-inventing the wheel at a time when stability and certainty is needed. Pupils deserve exam results to show for all their hard work, and existing systems that have held their own as a standard over time should not be thrown out for the sake of change. But we do need to address the issue of admissions to university, and how results and assessment are used to deliver this.

Post Qualification Admissions have been proposed as a way forward, yet with the qualifications themselves under review, we need greater long-term certainty of how we can achieve an equitable admissions system that encourages disadvantaged pupils to reach their potential. The fact that just nine per cent of boys from the north east reach university remains one of the starkest failures of our education system: universities have a critical role too in helping to address some of these divides that are likely only to be compounded as a result of Covid.

Reforms to post-18 education to ensure lifelong learning and flexible qualification structures have taken on a fresh urgency in light of the pandemic, especially with the likely need for retraining and reskilling of a large number of people seeking new forms of employment. For them, and indeed the country, education will be a vital ladder, an escape route, out of their present circumstances.

Ultimately, a long-term education recovery plan must start not from what is convenient for existing systems and vested interests of the organisations that operate in this space. To do this would mean that those with the loudest voices, and greatest lobbying efforts, win out. What is needed instead is an approach that defines the “points of contact” at every stage of a child’s educational journey — and defining how these have been adversely affected by the pandemic, and what can be done to resolve this.

Defining and delivering a long-term plan, with the investment needed to achieve this, will be hard work: easier, more tactical approaches, may seem more attractive. Yet to achieve an effective recovery, the longer term, strategic planning is now essential. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, how we have the opportunity to make choices, based either on fast, intuitive thinking, or slow, rational thinking, yet “when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution”.

With all the immediate talk of laptop provision as the instant solution to current learning problems, we must not forget that now is also the time to prepare all pupils for their educational recovery, encompassed in a long-term strategic approach. It is a choice that we must take, and think rationally about how we deal with what will become one of the greatest fall-outs from the pandemic.

Chris Skidmore: It’s freedom that will make Britain a global science superpower – not Whitehall micro-management

23 Dec

Chris Skidmore is a former Universities, Science, Reseach and Innovation Minister between 2018-2020, and is MP for Kingswood.

Goodbye 2020: perhaps not the worst year in history as Time would have us believe, but it’s certainly up there. As the earth completes its orbit around the sun, 2021 won’t offer us the chance to begin afresh, sadly, but it does offer the opportunity to set a different course.

The year ahead is a critical one for the United Kingdom, now as an independent sovereign state, as it seeks to step out of its former EU status, to forge a fresh identity.

How we are perceived during the next year ahead will shape how the world views the UK for the next decade. Fortunately, we have two major international responsibilities, in the Presidency of the G7 and as hosts of the United Nations COP26 climate conference, which offer the chance to for us to shine on the global stage – if we wish to seize it.

To do so, we only need to look at the map highlighting where the Covid vaccine has been administered. The UK has powered ahead, both by investing over £12 billion on vaccine development – more than the entire EU put together – but also by moving quickly to allow trials to proceed at pace.

No-one really expected a vaccine to be ready this year but, necessity being the mother of invention and all that, the awesome power of R&D and the human capacity for innovation was unleashed in full – thanks to early strategic investment. In doing so, Boris Johnson has achieved his first ‘moonshot’, doubling down on the UK’s international reputation when it comes to cutting edge science and research.

Add to this our commitment as the first G7 country to sign net zero carbon emissions into law by 2050 – again the UK leading where, over the past year France, Japan, China have followed – we have the potential to dominate the global climate stage.

I know first-hand, as a former Science, Research, and Innovation Minister, just how passionate and committed Boris Johnson is when it comes to this agenda. It’s why, even before the pandemic broke, he announced that we would double our research and development budget from £9 billion a year to £22 billion annually by 2025.

So the phrase, ‘global science superpower’ aren’t hollow words when coming from his mouth. The Prime Minister is absolutely committed to making the UK the place to invest in science and research, from enhancing our capabilities in space – where we purchased an entire growing fleet of satellites in the multi-million deal with OneWeb earlier this year – to ripping up the VISA rules to allow international scientists and researchers to come to the UK, with the offer for the first time of applying to UKRI funded programmes.

New investments in projects from a fusion nuclear reactor to a fleet of carbon capturing factories have been agreed. What we have seen from Johnson is perhaps the greatest commitment to science and innovation from a British Prime Minister since Harold Wilson’s White Heat of Technology speech.

Here, however, we must learn the lessons of history. Much of Wilson’s commitment came to nothing, or got bogged down in badly-placed decisions and investments made by Whitehall – not to mention turgid, out of date industrial strategies that looked to protect the past, not imagine the future.

We cannot afford to make the same mistakes again. Science and research thrives not on micro-management by government, but on freedom. The freedom to decide research priorities, yes— which is why we rightly enshrined the Haldane principle into law— but perhaps more importantly, the freedom to fail, and to fail hard.

The idea of failure might be an anathema to Whitehall, but it is the guiding principle behind the new Advanced Projects Research Agency, or ARPA, heralded by Dominic Cummings. In spite of his departure, it should remain a manifesto priority: we need its approach to risk, and indeed failure, that has benefitted many unthinkable yet now mainstream innovations in the USA.

We need, too, to extend this principle of freedom when it comes to wider support for innovation and research: new regulation-reducing, bureaucracy-slashing, legislation in the form of a ‘Freedom to Innovate’ bill would be a powerful step in showing that the UK was serious about scientific research, not merely in the form of increased investment or bringing global research talent to its shores – but that we were prepared to create the right climate, ecosystem (call it what you like) that gave the best possible chance for scientific breakthrough.

Our universities and research institutes have in the past been magnets for researchers from across the world to come to the UK. They have done so not to practise individual endeavours, but to collaborate.

This message of collaboration is one that we need now: yes, we have left the EU, but that should not prevent us from continuing to form and strengthen international scientific partnerships, including associating to the Horizon research programme, just as Israel does. In any case, we should be expanding international partnerships, and using next year, particularly at the helm of COP, to make 2021 the year Britain defined its identity in the world as being steeped in the values of innovation and research.

To truly make the most of what might be a make or break year, we must face beyond the immediate crisis that the pandemic has unleashed upon us. Research and innovation have provided us with the chance to escape from this COVID hell hole. Boris Johnson is right to place his, and our, faith in its remarkable power to forge a new, unimaginable tomorrow, if the UK is to truly succeed in a year which will define its future.

Chris Skidmore: Churchill, Colston – and the new polling shows that most of us are proud of our history. We need to study it more.

28 Jun

Chris Skidmore is a former Universities Minister, and is MP for Kingswood.

Why does history matter? Well, as I wrote on this site nearly a decade ago, history can give us a common, shared body of knowledge and values which we then pass on to the next generation.

In recent weeks, however, it has become clear that there are vast gaps in that knowledge for too many people. A sense of national, shared values seems to be breaking down, as the vandalising of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square so amply demonstrated. Graffiti labelling him a “racist” speaks volumes about how some on the political extremes approach our history.

The good news, revealed in Policy Exchange polling – published today to mark the launch of its History Matters Project – is that there is more consensus on our history today that one might imagine.

When asked if Churchill’s statue should stay put in Parliament Square, four out of five people said yes. Even among 18 to 24-year-olds, there was a large majority in favour of leaving him alone, despite what the leaders of recent protests have had to say on the subject.

In general, the polling revealed, British people are proud of our history, with only 17 per cent saying it is something of which to be ashamed. The vast majority recognise that it makes little sense to judge historical figures according to contemporary mores.

Yet there is serious concern that a minority of activists are being given too much of say over what happens to our national and local monuments. Who gets to decide which statues remain, and which are toppled? It surely cannot be the loudest voices, or an angry mob that chooses on the spur of the moment.

Companies and public institutions should also be wary of rushing to appease the noisiest activists. As Trevor Phillips, Chair of the History Matters Project, has noted, too much is happening too quickly. He urges a pause for reflection – “to consider what is being done, why and with what effect”. We might also remember the late Roger Scruton’s words here: “good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”

With that wisdom in mind, what should we be trying to create? Difficult though it may be, I would argue for a greater understanding of our history that must begin at school. Some 60 per cent of those polled, I’m pleased to note, were in favour of children learning history to GCSE. This is a position I have supported for more than a decade, not only because I am a historian myself.

I also recognise that the humanities, these so-called ‘soft’ academic subjects, are worthwhile in themselves and can also lead to high-status careers. I applaud the excellent new “Shape” initiative, supported by the British Academy, which stands for “social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy”, and will promote these subjects, and the sort of reasoning skills and wider perspective they can offer school pupils and university students. “Shape” is not in opposition to Stem, but should hopefully serve to remind people of the UK’s strong creative economy and the job opportunities within it.

The truth, sadly, is that while about a third of children take GCSE history, as Government research indicates, subjects like it are “much  more  likely  to  be  taken  by  pupils  from  less  deprived backgrounds”. The same research also shows that over a quarter of schools do not even offer history GCSE.

As I discovered in 2011, in 159 schools, not a single pupil was entered for GCSE History, with 13 per cent of comprehensives entering less than one in ten pupils for the subject. How can we possibly expect to have a shared body of knowledge and values if we do not give children the opportunity to learn about our past? There are still vast blackspots in the education system where history is inaccessible, especially to disadvantaged children.

What might help address this is history that has a local as well as national approach. Children should learn about their local area, as well as Britain’s national story. Field trips and hands-on activities should be encouraged. History should not be a dry and dusty subject, but seen as a living study, with local elements that they can see for themselves.

Children should also learn that revisionism and intelligent criticism of past historical works is central to the academic process. It is wrong to say we can’t change our history. We can: history is an ever-changing study of the past, with its multiple narratives and biases. It’s the past that we can’t change.

Those who don’t want to study or debate the past but tear it down should be strongly resisted. Emmanuel Macron put it well when he said France “will not erase any trace, or any name, from its history… it will not take down any statue.” Instead, he argued, “we should look at all of our history together”, with a goal of “truth” instead of “denying who we are”.

This is what worries me about those who cherry-pick historical figures, such as Edward Colston in Bristol, and decide that they must be erased from public memory, like a disappearing commissar in an airbrushed, Stalin-era photograph. How many Bristolian children will have heard of Colston in 20 years’ time? Far better, I think, that they should learn of him as in some respects a hero and a villain, a product of his time, whose life was exceptional in ways that today are considered both good and bad.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little room for nuance in the recent debate around history, which has become the latest front in a culture war between left and right. But those of us in politics should remember – as today’s polling indicates – that there is a large, silent majority who value the UK’s history, want to protect it, and fervently wish that more of us could learn more about it.