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Labour manifesto suggests lack of hard thinking about R&D

 Image: Keir Starmer [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

To tackle deep-seated problems, party must resist both techno-hype and received wisdom, says Kieron Flanagan

It seems increasingly likely that Keir Starmer will enter Downing Street on 5 July as the leader of a Labour government with a sizeable majority. The party is sticking to its ‘Ming vase’ strategy of getting over the line without any missteps—but this doesn’t explain the lack of new detail on research and innovation policy in the Labour manifesto, launched in Manchester last week.

I count four mentions of ‘science’, and those are references to the UK’s life sciences and data science sectors. ‘Research’ gets two mentions, one in connection with a promise to better join up investments in artificial intelligence research, the other a reference to the UK’s excellent research institutions.

The most specific statement relates to the pre-manifesto commitment to 10-year budgets for government R&D spending. But given that no parliament can bind its successor, this would require handing over multi-year tranches of funds in advance.

This would entail huge changes in government spending and accounting practices. Realistically, we’re probably looking at a statement of intent, more like the last Labour government’s science and innovation investment framework for 2004-14.

One new thing in the manifesto is explicit recognition of the financial crisis in the university system. Unfortunately, there’s no hint at what Labour might do to deal with this profound challenge.

A significant rise in English tuition fees seems inconceivable; nor can I see substantial new funding for teaching and research. A Labour government might commission a review of funding to consider the long-term issues, but in the short term everything points to a continued reliance on international students to plug the gap and the prospect of bail-outs or enforced mergers of individual universities.

Innovation incoherence

What about innovation? I count 15 mentions. This, too, is in keeping with past manifestos—everyone wants more innovation.

There are general promises to encourage innovation in the NHS, in defence, in financial services, in infrastructure and transport, and in regulation. There are the already announced promises of a new industrial strategy and national wealth fund. There are statements about the vitality and importance of our creative industries.

Isolated commitments around gigafactories and data centres make for future-facing soundbites, but not a coherent strategy. And there are several mentions of harnessing public procurement to drive innovation, something governments of all flavours have sought to achieve for two decades, but which does have potential if better joined up with industrial strategies and other policies.

Indeed, in power, there are a lot of small things Labour might do to improve strategy and co-ordination around industrial and technology policy without major spending increases. And the party’s core message seems to be: growth first, investment later.

In denial?

But is Labour in denial about the scale of the structural weaknesses that stunt productivity and drive inequality in the UK? The long-term assumptions behind science and technology policy—of managing decline relative to the rest of the world and of the power of university research commercialisation—are deeply ingrained. There are also powerful forces in the system with an interest in lobbying against change.

This does not make change impossible. There’s the counter-example of the 1964 creation of the Ministry of Technology by Harold Wilson’s incoming government to shift technological priorities away from defence while upgrading industry. MinTech, based in part on the powerful wartime Ministry of Supply, could mobilise significant public spending on new technologies. However, it soon fell out of favour.

Finding ways to create, shape and scale-up early markets for advanced technologies is essential if public R&D investment is not to be a luxury that mainly benefits foreign actors. This could be addressed partly by linking R&D policy to industrial strategy and plans for devolution and local growth. The risk is that a Labour government instead continues the present government’s naive obsession with AI and digital technologies.

UK policy wonks of all stripes read the same blogs and pay too much attention to the same big-name commentators. It’s too easy to mistake hype for prophecy. This hype reinforces the obsession with commercialising basic research, rather than a genuinely broader-based technology policy that puts R&D at the heart of industrial upgrading and market creation.

There’s a strong unmet need in the UK to learn from earlier waves of technological development, and from the policy responses towards them. It’s hard enough to do this in opposition; to do it in government will be almost impossible.

Kieron Flanagan is professor of science and technology policy at the Manchester Institute for Innovation Research, University of Manchester

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight