Getting to grips with what the upcoming elections mean for R&D&I and universities

Getting to grips with what the upcoming elections mean for R&D&I and universities

By Zakaria Ismail, Policy Analyst, NCUB

With elections approaching in Holyrood Scotland, Senedd Wales and across 143 local councils throughout England, campaigns are well under way.

In this two-part blog, we take a closer look at what party manifestos have to say about areas of policy that are relevant to university and business collaboration. This part focusses on research, development and innovation and what this means for higher education. For our thoughts on what the manifestos say about business support, jobs and skills, take a look here.

NCUB has made a strong case that research, development and innovation should be the engine of growth and recovery across the UK following the pandemic. The party manifestos provide some insight into whether this is reflected in the priorities of party candidates in Scotland and Wales, as well as for local areas across England.

Scotland

NCUB’s Research to Recovery report made a strong case for the role of private sector R&D spending to be better recognised and incentivised in public policy. Acknowledging the growth in Scotland’s R&D since 2007, the incumbent Scottish National Party (SNP) have promised to work with enterprise agencies and the Scottish National Bank towards a £100m public sector funding increase in private sector-led Research and Development projects over the next parliament.  To put this into context, over half of R&D expenditure in Scotland in 2018 came from the private sector, and the £100m increase represents the equivalent of over 7% of all business R&D expenditure in Scotland from the same year.

In power, the SNP commissioned a Scottish Funding Council review into how best to achieve coherence and sustainability in the delivery of further and higher education. The first phase of the report recognised “the vital role of Scotland’s colleges and universities in transforming lives and supporting economic and social development”. It also highlighted the need for change in order to ensure continued success and sustainability.  It seems likely that the findings from the Review will help frame the SNP’s approaches to higher education were to succeed in securing a further term.  As the SNP have promised to maintain their relationship with the European Union, including on trade, investments and exports, they do not comment on securing a replacement for EU structural funds.

Also recognising the important role that universities play in R&D, the Scottish Conservatives have  promised to support Scottish universities to maintain their world-leading reputation; however, it is unclear whether that will mean an increase in funding to university research.  Importantly, the R&D sector as a whole will gain a boost with the Scottish Conservatives promising to raise R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2026, using the Scottish National Investment Bank to support innovation in sectors such as energy, finance, and agriculture. Despite representing just 8% of the UK’s population, Scottish universities punch above their weight and represent 13% of all UK university R&D expenditure. Finally, the Conservatives have pledged to use the Scottish National Investment Bank to support innovation in the economy. This would include investment in the Scottish space sector to enhance Scotland’s reputation as a world leader in satellite technology.

Lastly, the Scottish Labour party have pledged to invest more in university research and innovation over the next parliament, and to link university research to their industrial strategy (including their green jobs plan). They have also promised investment into the university sector, and a proposed restructuring of the Scottish National Investment Bank is partly motivated by a need to fund new ideas.

Importantly, the SNP, Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour have all pledged to uphold free access to universities for Scottish students.

Wales

Wales’ three main parties, the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and Plaid Cymru, have all set out plans for research, development and innovation in their manifestos.

The Labour party’s manifesto includes a promise to support innovation through the new Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in North Wales. This reflects a real strength - 75% of R&D expenditure in Wales came from the manufacturing sector in 2018. They have also pledged to help key areas of their economy, such as aerospace and steel, to innovate, grow and reduce their carbon footprint.

The importance of universities to the R&D and innovation landscape in Wales is clear – the eight universities in Wales accounted for nearly half of the £786m spent on R&D in Wales in 2018, and accounted for 84% of all of Wales’ published research outputs. Sustaining university research funding will play an important part in maintaining and progressing R&D and innovation at later stages of growth.

All three major parties in Wales recognise the importance of R&D and innovation in some form, with the Welsh Labour party specifically promising continued investment in university research ‘to help maximise their contribution to the local economy… and develop further as centres of international excellence’. This is welcome, though there will be some dismay that none of the main parties in Wales have commented on whether they intend to increase Welsh Innovation Funding.

EU structural funds have historically played an important part in boosting Welsh R&D and innovation. Although the UK Shared Prosperity Fund is intended to replace some of this funding, there are concerns from both devolved nations (Scotland and Wales) that the level of funding will not be equivalent to the European Structural Funds. The Labour party administration in Wales, in response to these concerns, has called for ‘cast-iron’ guarantees that there will be no reduction in funding.

The Welsh Conservatives also pledge to boost Welsh universities’ ability to undertake research and will work with the UK government to increase investment in R&D. Trade & Invest Wales, the official Welsh Government marketing initiative for foreign direct investment, highlighted energy & environment as one of eight priority sectors for the Welsh economy, employing 58,000 people and generating over £4.8 billion in revenue. As part of their goal to help Wales reach Net Zero by 2050, the Welsh Conservatives have pledged to work with both Welsh universities and the private sector in order to create a new centre for excellence and research into energy storage and transportation.

Importantly, Plaid Cymru have pledged to set a national goal of doubling the 1% of GDP that is currently spent on R&D in Wales and have promised to increase Government spending on R&D. Part of the ambition attached to  increased investment is to help Welsh universities ‘rise up the global rankings’, increasing the attractiveness for Welsh-domiciled students currently opting for English universities. Gross R&D spend in Wales represents only 2% of all R&D spending in the UK, despite Wales making up five per cent of the UK population. Plaid Cymru have promised they will seek to devolve Wales’ share of UK Research and Innovation expenditure and have called for a block grant to be allocated based on population.

England

For local elections across England, there was less reference to research, development and innovation priorities in the manifestos we reviewed.

In a helpful move, Sadiq Khan, the current Labour mayor of London has promised to bring together universities and businesses as part of the city’s wider plan for recovery from the pandemic.

The Conservative Party candidate Shaun Bailey has called for investment in the biomedical sector and green technologies, with Luisa Porritt, candidate for the Liberal Democrats saying that digital innovation is a sector they are looking to champion.

Research was not mentioned within the manifestos of the current mayors in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, but Greater Manchester’s Labour mayor, Andy Burnham, did call for increased access to higher education.

Reflections

Reflecting perhaps a growing national awareness of the role and importance of R&D, we note with interest that many manifestos for parties campaigning in Local Elections next week are addressing this agenda.  Aligned with the role that R&D can have in terms of economic and social recovery from the pandemic, we are pleased to see political parties making this is a priority commitment especially to their local areas. 

There is a welcome recognition across parties of the important role that R&D and innovation can play in social and economic recovery from the pandemic right across the UK. R&D&I played a key role in discovering lifesaving innovations throughout the pandemic, therefore, support for research and innovation is understandably at the forefront of minds. The details as to how this emphasis plays out in the context of a tight fiscal and economic funding environment will remain to be seen.

29th April 2021

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