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Labour must make the link between innovation and inequality

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Starmer’s science policy should also prioritise climate, biomedicine and a digital NHS, says Melanie Smallman

Keir Starmer’s speech to the Labour conference in Brighton is his first real chance to lay out his vision for the party. So, with science still playing such an important role in our path out of the pandemic, what should Labour focus on as it develops its science and technology policy?

Covid has exposed the UK’s stark levels of inequality and insecurity. These might not seem like issues for science, but they are. Science and innovation are drivers of economic growth, but it’s a particular kind of growth: well-paid tech jobs tend to reward well-educated men. 

This can distort housing markets and displace families. New technologies in public services often replace low-skilled jobs, diverting money from local taxpayers to global corporations that often pay little tax in the UK. 

This does not mean we should not support innovation. Instead, Labour needs to think about innovation’s role in driving inequality, and what it means for regional development. 

It is no coincidence that the ‘red wall’ constituencies—the places feeling most left behind—are those outside university towns, typically with less well-educated populations. These places constantly get the dirty end of innovation’s stick.  

As well as pointing education towards high-value jobs and offering training for those who need to reskill, Labour must make sense of how national decisions about innovation and technology shape regional economies and labour markets. 

This should involve adopting more inclusive and cooperative models of innovation and business ownership. Investment and procurement choices should go towards the industries, technologies and companies most likely to reduce inequality.

Green tech

Second, Labour needs to restore the UK’s lead in green tech. The Green Alliance think tank recently calculated that the government was a long way from meeting its 2050 target for net-zero carbon emissions. Innovation is rapidly becoming the best hope for getting there. 

Many businesses are ready and able to contribute. Yet the Climate Change Committee, which advises the government, warned in 2019 that policies were failing to incentivise or were even discouraging business investment in low-carbon technologies. A clear commitment to a rapid low-carbon transition could release significant industry investment in green technologies, creating jobs, products and markets.

Biomedical science

Third, Labour needs to pressure the government to repair the damage done to UK biomedical science. Throughout the pandemic, the prime minister has stood shoulder to shoulder with the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer, heaping praise on the researchers at Oxford who helped develop a Covid-19 vaccine. 

Meanwhile, donations to medical charities crashed as events were cancelled and charity shops closed during lockdowns. UK biomedical research has lost £270 million, according to the Association of Medical Research Charities. 

Add to this the £120m hole in UK Research and Innovation’s budget created by this year’s cuts to overseas aid, the recruitment challenges posed by Brexit and the Wellcome Trust’s move to open up funding to the rest of the world, and suddenly the UK’s biomedical science—once world-leading—faces a worrying future. 

Calls for more public funds are likely to go unheeded, particularly given the recent rise in national insurance. But additional funding need not come solely from government: back in 1999, for example, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown cut a deal with the Wellcome Trust to co-fund the Joint Infrastructure Fund. Biomedical charities are open to something similar, promising to match any investment via the Charity Partnership Fund.

Digital NHS

Finally, health. The NHS’s unique store of patient data could be a huge opportunity in health technology. But, as data and science increasingly come to underpin treatment and care, it is also vital to consider if this is the kind of NHS we want. 

The debacle around sharing patient data, which has seen record numbers of patients withdraw consent, needs to be sorted. Patchy data could be disastrous for research and entrench health inequalities. But it is difficult to blame people for withdrawing when it isn’t clear who will be able to access and benefit from the data. 

Citizens understand that decisions about access to their data are also decisions about the future shape of healthcare. Even in opposition, Labour needs to step in on this issue and lead public debate on who should have access to patient data and for what ends—and, ultimately, what a digital NHS should look like. 

Melanie Smallman is an associate professor in the department of science and technology studies at University College London. She is speaking at the Labour conference event “The dignity of labour at the heart of a new economic settlement” on 28 September  

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight