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Norman Lamb MP: 'We punch well below our weight in terms of spending on R&D'

Norman Lamb MP: 'We punch well below our weight in terms of spending on R&D'
4 min read

Following the launch of the industrial strategy the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, the Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Lamb, calls for the government to match its ambition with substance to prepare Britain for the industries of the future. 

The Government’s long-awaited white paper on the industrial strategy came at an important time. Arriving just a week after the gloomy forecasts unveiled in the Budget, it sets out a vision of a high-skilled and high-productivity economy fit for the twenty-first century, putting Britain at the forefront of innovation and the revolution in science and technology. 

Overall, the ambitions and direction of travel in the white paper are welcome. By focusing on the four ‘grand challenges’ of artificial intelligence and data, future mobility, clean growth and an ageing society, it aims to harness the massive potential of emerging industries and technological change in a way that could transform our economy while improving standards of living. However, greater detail and firm commitments will be needed to translate this vision into a successful strategy that stands the test of time.

Despite Britain’s world-leading science and research institutions, we punch well below our weight in terms of spending on R&D. The white paper reaffirms the Government’s welcome commitment to raise R&D spending to the OECD average of 2.4% of GDP within ten years, but a further boost to the science budget of around £2bn will be needed to meet this target. 2027 might sound a long way off, but an early commitment from government would send a vital signal to businesses that post-Brexit Britain is an attractive place to invest.

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.

I was therefore encouraged by the announcement of a new ‘Strength in Places Fund’ to help areas build on their existing strengths in science and research, strengthen collaboration between businesses and research institutions, and support the development of ‘Local Industrial Strategies’. The Science and Technology Committee had called for such a fund to be created, and ministers now have an urgent task to ensure that this succeeds in unleashing scientific centres of excellence, skilled jobs, and higher productivity in areas outside the ‘Golden Triangle’.

Overshadowing the industrial strategy, however, is the continued uncertainty over Brexit – not least Britain’s future involvement in EU research collaborations. Ahead of the Budget, the Committee challenged the Government to commit to full participation in the successor programme to Horizon-2020, which has benefited British universities and businesses to the tune of over €3bn, or offer an alternative vision for collaboration on a similar scale.

With so much at stake, it is seriously worrying that the white paper does little more than repeat the Government’s vague hope of future involvement in these programmes. Nor does it offer assurances that talented researchers will continue to move freely between the UK and the EU, which would have sent a strong signal about our intention to remain a full player in European research cooperation after Brexit.

Set against this uncertainty, the promised upgrade in skills and training will be even more important. The critical shortage of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills continues to be a major hindrance to the UK economy that successive governments have failed to address, despite bold promises.  In a recent survey by the Institution for Engineering and Technology, almost two-thirds of employers said that recruiting engineering staff with the rights skills would be their biggest challenge over the next three years. 

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. 

Norman Lamb is the Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk & is the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee.

This article first appeared in the House Magazine alongside an article by Nigel Fine, Chief Executive of the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

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