Will Tanner: Both candidates must vow to end Britain’s neglect of its scientific capacity

4 Aug

Will Tanner is Director of Onward and a former Deputy Head of Policy in Number 10 Downing Street.

Two questions above all others animate this Conservative leadership contest: how to revive Britain’s woeful rate of economic growth, and how to secure Britain’s interests in a global order that is decreasingly Western.

Not for nothing have the biggest fireworks between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak so far been around tax cuts and standing up to China.

But national prosperity and security depend on much more than headline rates of corporation tax and diplomatic assertiveness. Much more important is a country’s ability to operate at the scientific frontier, developing new technologies that can dominate future markets and applying existing innovation to improve national competitiveness.

Industrial revolution is what made Britain a superpower in the 19th Century and it is what will keep us there today.

Yet in the last few weeks, science, and innovation has proved the proverbial elephant in the husting. Party members have heard almost nothing from either candidate on how they will protect, or enhance, the UK’s scientific reputation or transform investment in R&D. This is despite the fact that Britain has been mostly neglecting its scientific capacity over the last three decades, while our competitors have been massively tooling up.

As Onward’s new paper Rocket Science shows, the UK used to be one of the most research-intensive economies in the world. Until the 1980s, we spent more on R&D than Japan and only slightly less than the United States, at around two per cent of GDP. Since then spending has flatlined, while countries like Israel and South Korea have more than doubled their innovation capacity to nearly five per cent of GDP.

The UK is the only major scientific economy that spent less, on average, on R&D during the 2010s than it did during the 1990s.

Thanks, in fairness, to Sunak’s decision to almost double government science spending to £22 billion by 2024, public investment in R&D is starting to recover to an internationally-respectable level.

But business investment still lags badly behind other countries, pulling down UK productivity and competitiveness. Just 55 per cent of UK R&D is funded by the private sector, compared to 64 per cent in the United States and 79 per cent in China and Japan.

A crucial but as yet unanswered question for the two contenders is: how will you change that?

One option is to encourage universities to focus less on early-stage discovery and more at the “near-market” industrial frontier.

Politicians regularly tout the fact that the UK has 18 universities in the global top 100 for academia, but perhaps more germane to growth is the fact that just five feature in the top 100 for innovation. The UK files fewer patents as a share of GDP than most of our competitors, and has seen the ratio of patents to R&D spend decline consistently for the last two decades.

This is partly because the UK’s research funding system tends to reward citations and academic impact rather than patents, and partly because universities are forced to cross-subsidise research through revenue from foreign students, which both undermines institutions’ ability to hire and retain top researchers and creates a strategic dependency on the very country we are competing against, given more than a third of non-EU students originate from China.

Another option would be to more actively use public R&D funding to leverage in private capital, for example by making grants conditional on business match-funding or by funding national labs in areas of strategic priority – from quantum computing to genomics – that can crowd in private capital alongside.

This is closer to how the UK operated before the 1980s, through initiatives like the Microelectronics Industry Support Programme and the National Research Development Corporation, which co-funded R&D with private businesses and retained patents publicly.

Most importantly, though, the two candidates need to offer a long-term and cast-iron commitment to improving the UK’s levels of scientific competitiveness and certainty. The UK has one of the most complex policy environments for science (with seven different types of R&D relief, for example) and one of the most unstable, with new reliefs and strategies announced almost annually over the last decade.

Compare this to Japan, which has maintained the same R&D tax credit since the 1980s, and the problem becomes clear.

The “Science Superpower” agenda should not be alien to either Sunak, a former technology investor who studied at Stanford Business School, or Truss, a maths graduate who has been a fierce advocate for UK tech and STEM in schools. But it has so far proved curiously absent from either of their pitches to lead the country.

That is a mistake if they are remotely serious about either improving Britain’s long-term growth rate or competing with new world powers such as China.

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Rachel Wolf: My verdict on Levelling Up? A wonderful strategy in places – but one that shows deep government tensions.

4 Feb

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

Only Michael Gove could take a departmental White Paper and turn it into a government’s manifesto. The paper demonstrates both his abilities and the limits of his persuasive power across government. It is a paper with great ambition, and many great policies, but it would have been more effective from a Prime Minister’s Office than from a Department.

First, let’s talk about why the white paper matters. As I’ve written on this site before, levelling up is a terrible phrase which gets a terrible reception with voters. They don’t understand what it means, and they don’t like the wording.

But some of the principles outlined this week – the idea that we can make places better to live in, with more opportunities – matter enormously. In towns across the country, too many have felt too ignored for too long. As Will Tanner wrote on this site a couple of days ago, there is also an economic imperative. The country loses out when so many areas underperform.

The policies in the white paper are also the best opportunity for this government to show it has delivered real change. “Covid was a bit less bad than it could have been, the cost-of-living crisis marginally less awful, and we raised taxes but have now brought them down again” is not, to me, a compelling proposition at the next election. Here are the improvements in your area, and here’s the plan for the next five years, is better.

The paper, which has deep and serious analysis, and tangible metrics, understands this (although I seem to be the only person who enjoyed the detour into Jericho and Babylon). In the areas Gove’s department controls, in particular, it has also proposed radical and important policies.

Long term, the most significant is the commitment to greater devolution. I was once a classic, centralising political adviser who thought that very clever people in Westminster should control everything (a bit like most people in the Treasury). I’m now an equally classic political adviser who has been wearied by the limits of what any central government can achieve, and who understands that ‘joined up government’, building from the genuine demands of the people, requires local decision making.

Conservative governments’ rhetoric on devolution has long outstripped the reality, but the white paper outlines real powers that more devolution will bring and offers the promise of more. Yes, it continues the journey of previous administrations – but this seems to me a good thing. School reform, which I worked on in 2010, was an acceleration of the academy programme initiated by Tony Blair. That’s why it stuck.

The shift of R&D funding outside the golden triangle (London, Oxford, Cambridge) also matters, though there’s a lot of detail needed on how it will be spent. We should be getting at least one university significantly up the global R&D rankings through targeted investment, and we should be aligning R&D from the public sector better with the private sector.

Neither of these, of course, are election winning policies. The public are sceptical about devolution in particular. But they’re important, substantive shifts and I think they will be very hard to reverse.

Shorter term, there is a wholly necessary and sensible focus on civic pride – something which I/Public First have long argued for. The white paper has managed to both secure devolution of the Shared Prosperity Fund, and avoid it being so tightly constrained by Treasury that it can’t be spent on local priorities.

There is a consistent focus on what matters to people – high streets, crime, community, green spaces. If (big if) the policies in the white paper are delivered rapidly and effectively, the Government has just about enough time to explain to people across the country what levelling up was about, and why it is helping their area.

But there are also a number of areas where the scale of the stated ambition, and the policies, diverge. Most obvious is the first section on productivity and private sector investment – which is incredibly disappointing. It is a mish mash of previously announced policies which do not begin to address the scale of the challenge.

Aside from the increase in R&D spend, it is hard to pinpoint a big new idea which is likely to significantly change business behaviour. This must be the Treasury’s refusal to play ball. I genuinely do not understand, for example, why they won’t give certainty over the super-deduction and make it longer term.

In general few government departments seem, to me, to have come up with much more than a rehashed list of policies that were already in the works or due to be announced. Their approach to devolving decision making or rebalancing spending away from the South East is also far from uniform.

This is where the ability of a single government department to drive change across Whitehall stutters. Without a very strong Downing Street, able to prioritise and drive policy, fiefdoms will always remain. With the Prime Minister now at odds with his Chancellor on policy but too weak to impose his will on the Treasury, a fully coherent approach is impossible. .

Meanwhile most irritating, to me, is schools and skills. The schools target – for 90 per cent of children to reach the expected standard in reading, writing, and maths by 2030 – is wonderful, but I have no idea from the paper how it is supposed to be achieved.

The skills target, meanwhile, is unambitious. I make it as 0.3 per cent more of the population doing skills training every year. If the entire government were really behind levelling up, they’d throw everything behind the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, which gives people the money and colleges and universities the incentive to put on proper training courses for everyone.

Where does that leave us? A paper which is brilliant in its ambition and analysis, and which has devised serious policies under a serious secretary of state. It is also a paper that has truly understood the priorities of people and – if delivery is on track – could improve large numbers of places very rapidly.

But it is necessarily limited by the deep policy tensions between the Treasury and Downing Street, and the inability to force all departments to row together. Will it stand the test of time? Yes, I think much of it will – particularly on devolution and R&D. Can some of its policies help win an election? Again, yes. But for as long as the leaders of the Government are divided, even the best reforming minister I have ever seen cannot paper over the cracks.

Robert Buckland: This focus on shrinking the state is out of date. Voters have moved on from the 1980s. So should our party.

7 Jan

Robert Buckland is MP for South Swindon, and is a former Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor.

Politics in recent years has seemed to be all unprecedented challenges. This is undeniably true, but in many ways, history continues to repeat itself. Once upon a general election, an old Etonian Prime Minister with more than a touch of showman about him and who campaigned with a heavy dose of optimism, support for public services, an unapologetic appeal beyond strong cultural divisions and a distinct sense that our best days lay ahead won 365 seats right across our nation from Hartlepool to Swansea West. I am of course talking about 1959.

For Tory leaders from the 19th century onwards, the strong sense that we are the “national” party has been the golden thread linking everything together. It was of course Disraeli who famously said that the “Tory Party is a national party or it is nothing”. As Tory Unionism grew stronger in the ensuring years, this concept of the party representing all parts of the Kingdom and not just England became stronger too.

All true Conservatives would have shared a sense a pride and excitement as we captured Scottish seats in 2017 and then made huge advances in Wales and the North of England in 2019, which is why any sense of confusion or uneasiness about the party’s current configuration of Parliamentary seats and support is not just misplaced, but bizarre and contrary to our traditions.

Understanding the world as it is, not as we would ideally like it to be, is a fundamental tenant of practical Conservatism. Will Tanner from Onward was correct in a recent article in which he highlighted that the existing coalition of likely Tory voters are to the right on culture and the left marginally on economic issues. They want toughness on crime and illegal immigration, whilst also expecting greater investment into our public services and local communities.

As we embark upon the new year, it is worth reflecting upon the pools of ink that have been spilt by commentators, either lamenting about or salivating over seemingly irreconcilable divisions between the apparent ideology of the Conservative Party and the voters that we now represent. We are solemnly told that Boris Johnson faces an impossible task in trying to reconcile the two.

This thesis is based upon two fundamental flaws. First, it makes the assumption that Toryism is frozen in some sort of mid-1980s state, and that it is driven by nothing more than free markets and shrinking the size of the state. Second, it makes the assumption that voters in different parts of the country are entirely separate species, as detached from each other as if they come from Venus and Mars respectively.

Fortunately for the Conservatives, neither assumption is true. To suggest, as was done after the Chesham and Amersham by-election, that voters in the South of England are somehow more “sophisticated” than voters elsewhere was not only insulting, but just plain wrong. This year, as we turn our focus increasingly towards the next general election, we need clarity of leadership and seriousness of purpose to reject this notion and refocus our collective efforts on appealing to our new coalition of voters.

Up and down our country, people are looking out for the delivery of promises made, so it is sensible to look again at what was written in the 2019 manifesto. Already, we are delivering on many of the key pledges, such as record-breaking NHS funding, 50,000 more nurses, 20,000 more police officers and tougher sentencing. Major immigration reforms are going through Parliament, and as promised we are seeing millions more per week being invested in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure.

Even before the onset of Covid-19, the Conservatives were warming up for a degree of state intervention that had not been contemplated for a generation. The unprecedented set of measures taken by this government during the pandemic was an eloquent demonstration of the death of ideology and its replacement with the politics of practical action.

When it comes to the clear manifesto pledge to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050, what unites voters in all corners of the country is the need to create more secure and sustainable sources of energy than fossil fuels whose supplies can be turned on and off by the likes of Russia. Greener energy sources mean greater energy security and self-sufficiency too, which is an aim that I believe is very much shared by the new coalition of Conservative suppporters.

The fact that millions of jobs and thousands of businesses survived, together with the NHS and our other public services, should be our message to voters that in extremely large measure, we were there for them in their time of greatest need. As a result, there can be no doubt about the Tory commitment to our public services.

Our opponents are fighting the battles of the past on this, whilst ignoring the real task, which has to be a relentless focus on value for money, particularly in the NHS. We have grasped the nettle of social care reform, but if the National Insurance rise this Spring is to mean anything, we have to see hard evidence that these funds will be used for social care once the Covid-19 health backlog has been dealt with. This is what voters will be looking for come the next election, and rightly so too.

A more unwelcome parallel with that historic 1959 win was that the Government was eventually laid low by a series of scandals that demonstrated a sense that it was no longer in touch with the people it was serving. With seriousness of purpose and a strong commitment to competent delivery, we can learn from history, maintain our great coalition and go on to even greater things as the 2020’s march forward. Less hand-wringing and more elbow grease is what is needed now.