A 10-year education mission could tackle the particularly difficult problem of identity – ‘is this for me?’’ Photograph: Greenwich University
Amid the turbulence of Brexit deadlines and extensions, you might be pleased to know that there are at least some long-term plans afoot. A good news story in government, with major investment attached, has the potential to create a new type of future for the UK. You may not have heard of it but, in a time of fiscal constraint, the government has given a staggering boost to the UK’s capability in research and innovation, paving the way for science investment to reach £65bn. This is the biggest uplift in about 40 years. Why would the government do this? Is it a good idea? And what do you want out of it?
The expression of differences and divisions in society at the polls have focused political minds on how to address them. The government tackles this through its industrial strategy, whose central objective is “to increase living standards and economic growth across the UK”. As the prime minister says in its foreword, the strategy aims “to make our United Kingdom a country that truly works for everyone”, or, to borrow a phrase from across the dispatch box, “for the many, not the few”.
At the heart of this strategy is a manifesto commitment to raise spending on research and development (R&D) as a proportion of GDP to 2.4% across the economy by 2027. A similar manifesto commitment was made by the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats at the last election and with similar intent, making science part of a social justice agenda that is likely to persist through different governments.
According to calculations by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, reaching this goal will require doubling R&D spend from £33bn to £65bn over 10 years. If achieved, this would represent the most significant shift in the contribution of science and innovation to our economy in decades. It would require not only multi-billions from the public purse, £7bn of which has already been committed, but also tens of billions of new investment in the UK from research-intensive industry, large and small. In a time of uncertainty, that is no mean feat, as research-led industry often values long-term stability for innovation to bear fruit.
A step-change of this scale will, and should, create an effect. Will it be one that heals divisions in society? Or is there a risk that an accelerating frontier of research and innovation could widen societal gaps rather than close them?
I ask myself, and invite you to ask, what difference do you want to notice in 10 years’ time as a result of this effort? What would you want to be better, for you or your loved ones? For your community or worldwide?
Perhaps it might be better career opportunities, discoveries that improve health, wellbeing or the environment, or ingenuity in services delivered well.
I wonder, though, if there is a risk that, while those with the agency to do so will benefit from a more scientifically enabled economy, others may feel yet more detached. Therefore, the most important challenge I see is to ensure that everyone is equipped to participate: in research and innovation itself, in debate about how it is used, and as users of innovation.
We need to act now to make sure everyone can participate in this “accelerating frontier” over the next decade. To accomplish that, I believe we need a 10-year education mission led by the education secretary, alongside the R&D investment mission led by the business secretary.
A mission on education would, quite rightly, supply the talent to deliver and sustain a newly elevated level of research and innovation in the UK. As Sir John Kingman, chair of UK Research and Innovation, has said, 50% more research will require 50% more researchers.
But another important civic goal of the education mission would be to enable everyone to participate in an accelerating knowledge and innovation economy if they wish, as citizens and commentators as well as researchers. This would avoid the widening of perceived or real divisions and may make it more likely that the benefits of research and innovation are felt across society.
A 10-year education mission could tackle the problems of resource and provision in science education, and the particularly difficult problem of identity – “is this for me?” – that can create barriers at an early stage. The industrial strategy’s goals on technical education and adult retraining could play an important part in this broader mission.
A transformation of the nature of the UK economy of this scale will require political commitment. Cross-party consensus on its importance for UK society needs to be backed by cross-government consensus. Trade, immigration, education, business and Treasury need to be united in their ambition to deliver it, and all departments could adopt new research and innovation in to their own work. This is a challenge for those hoping to lead the next administration to embrace.