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Labour courts academic vote, but bosses unimpressed

Labour’s manifesto commitments are popular with academics. But managers, administrators and policymakers are more cautious, as they tell Anna McKie.

The Labour Party’s bold ambitions to boost R&D spending to 3 per cent of GDP by 2030, abolish university tuition fees and remove university students from the UK’s immigration targets, will almost certainly get the academic vote. However, those more closely involved in policymaking warn that the proposals need to be more carefully costed and their implications more clearly assessed.

Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, agrees, for example, that, if implemented, the R&D funding boost would be “transformative” for science in the UK. Although the Conservative manifesto pledges to increase spending to 2.4 per cent in the next 10 years and 3 per cent “in the longer term”, Labour’s commitment could be seen as more ambitious, she says.

It’s not a pledge Labour as a government could achieve on its own, she adds. The 3 per cent commitment includes government and industry investment in R&D, so to achieve that, a Labour government would have to work closely with industry. “Three per cent just won’t happen unless you’re doing it hand in hand with the wider economy outside of government,” Main argues.

Main says the manifesto shows that Labour primarily sees R&D as a way of increasing the UK’s proportion of highly skilled jobs, by placing it within an industrial strategy. “That’s reasonable but there are various ways of wanting to talk about what you want to get out of that level of R&D investment,” she says.

Graeme Reid, chair of science policy at University College London and a former senior civil servant, also sounds a note of caution. He says that the manifesto doesn’t properly cash in on the benefits of higher R&D investment to other areas of UK policy. It appears to be “an isolated promise” without the support mechanisms needed to get there. “It’s a welcome recognition…but it’s missing the details that would be needed to deliver it; you need global corporations to choose the UK as their place to do R&D,” he says.

In contrast, John Unsworth, chairman of Scientists for Labour, says it’s a “joy” to see the commitment to doubling R&D spending, first set out by Jeremy Corbyn at the 2016 party conference, finally included in a manifesto. “The importance of science to the economy is clear.”

In common with the vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, Reid is also critical of the proposal to scrap tuition fees, saying it sounds like “half a policy”. Labour says the extra spending outlined in the manifesto—which also includes pledges to provide the NHS and social care with billions of pounds of extra funds—would be paid for through a 45p income tax on incomes above £80,000 and a 50p top tax rate on those earning more than £123,000.

Reid explains that there is not enough detail on how that extra cash would be divided. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies the plans could cost £12.7bn. Reid says the tuition fee proposal needs to be properly costed to include whatever system the fees would be replaced with.

Main agrees that the manifesto’s focus on teaching in higher education is important to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics community but says that Labour’s tuition-fee policy will also have to address how to maintain funding for the higher costs of science laboratories and teaching.

In contrast, the policy to end tuition fees is more popular with academics not involved in policy or management. For example, Tim Chico, deputy head of the department of infection, immunity and cardiovascular disease at the University of Sheffield, enthusiastically backs the scrapping of fees, which would be “a terrific outcome”, as long as the quality of education and the prospects that it provided were maintained.

Another mention of higher education in the Labour manifesto is a pledge to remove students from the net migration target. This has also been broadly welcomed. “That is the rational place to be,” Reid sums up.

Unsworth adds that immigration is important to maintain and grow the science base. “Any government bureaucracy that impedes that is a threat to science.”

Access to Horizon 2020 and future European research funding is also essential, he says. A Labour government would seek to stay a part of Framework programmes and retain membership of (or equivalent relationships with) European organisations that offer benefits to the UK, such as Euratom and the European Medicines Agency, the manifesto promises.

Main points to a contradiction at the heart of Labour’s EU proposals: access to Horizon 2020 requires the UK to have freedom of movement, something the Labour manifesto pledges to end.

“You’ve still got that negotiation problem [of] whether you would get access to Horizon 2020 if you didn’t have freedom of movement.”

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight’s Election Special 2017 under the headline "Aiming for the popular vote".