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A glimpse into Labour’s research policy

The Labour party has unveiled five pillars of its upcoming science policy, including the need for more accountable research councils, a long-term funding plan, and more effective assessment of research impact.

Labour’s shadow science minister, Chi Onwurah, set out her initial thoughts on the party’s ‘five-point plan for science’ at an annual party conference fringe event organised by the Science Council on 2 October, and in a follow-up interview with Research Fortnight Today.

However, she stressed that the plan is yet to be finalised and that more details will be announced later.

While Onwurah talked about the importance of reinstating a long-term funding plan for science, she did not want to commit to specific investment levels at this point.

The stance means that she is, for the time being, unable to support the Liberal Democrats’ recent call for an inflation plus 3 per cent science budget increase.

“When we get to a point where we can propose a figure, we would want to … work with the other parties”, she says. “But it’s too early and I don’t want to see scientists planning for unreal budgets 5-10 years in the future.”

Onwurah’s plan is divided into funding research; valuing science and engineering in society; translating science and innovation into growth and jobs; incentivising industry to invest in innovation; and targeting key sectors.

It includes a proposal on reviewing how to assess research impact. While believing in the value of impact statements, she says, the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework has developed a “tick-box approach to choosing scientific funding”.

“Because of the way the REF is defined, sometimes scientists may think they are going to get more credit if they identify impacts that aren’t really there,” she says. “I think we need to find a better way of doing it.”

The party is also investigating the need for research councils to be accountable to scientists. She highlights the recent protests against the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s funding policies as evidence that the relationship could be improved. Although she is yet to come up with specific measures on how to do this, she says it could involve some sort of “best practice” statements.

“Accountability doesn’t mean that a chemist gets to vote on a research council’s chemistry plan”, she says. “But a chemist should feel that their voice has been heard even if that means that they don’t get the funding they want. Although I praise the EPSRC for being open and transparent, we still have some way to go to accountability.“

Other ideas in the plan include increasing investment though the Small Business Research Initiative and targeting tax credits where they “make the most difference”.

Onwurah says the companies she would like to target include small, innovative and fast-growing businesses in certain important sectors and admits that the challenge will be to identify them. She says the Technology Strategy Board or its Catapult centres might be able to help with this task.

The “key sectors” the party would promote are space, automotive, green industries, and life sciences.

A “protected title” for engineers is suggested, as well as renaming Catapult centres ‘Turing centres’, and helping university research hubs achieve critical mass.

Meanwhile, the Royal Society of Chemistry’s president, Lesley Yellowlees, has criticised the party for not making a commitment to increase the science budget.

“We call on [Labour leader] Mr Miliband to acknowledge the vital role that research and development has to play in boosting our economy, by making a solid commitment to increase the UK science budget”, she said in a statement on 2 October.