The general election is now done and dusted. The UK’s future is determined, for good or ill. Scientists (along with everyone else) now must work out how to interact with the new policies, new ideas and – if some of the Tories statements are to be taken at face value – substantial new money going into fresh initiatives. One of those touted in the run-up to the election, courtesy of Dominic Cummings, is the idea of a (D)ARPA like funding entity, sitting – as far as current rumours go – outside UKRI. I am sure I won’t be the only scientist up and down the country reading up about (D)ARPA over Christmas; my copy of Sharon Weinberger’s book Imagineers of War is on order (as referenced in David Willetts’ The Road to 2.4%), ready as a distraction from family and turkey.
That possible initiative is not the only thing the community may need to get to grips with. Time to think more concretely about what life post EU-funding means and the loss of both the ERC and structural funds. Reading the Smith/Reid report leaves many questions unanswered. Will yet another extra-UKRI agency be set up to oversee any new replacement funding? How efficient would having three, distinct public funders be (to be clear, I mean UKRI, ARPA-UK and replacement-EU), if that really is the plan. Would the same senior scientists be involved in oversight of three such bodies; would their back-offices reinvent wheels, even if the conditions of funding were not identical?
Post access to EU funds, the possibility of new structures to serve a fully global world, no longer with a special emphasis on collaborations with our nearest neighbours, opens up. How would that work in practice? Would an international strategy be more focussed on facilitating capacity-building in sub-Saharan Africa or ensuring we have good links with the Chinese economy, as it itself invests so much in its own science? Whatever direction and shape these new structures might take, it is absolutely clear that resolving issues around immigration and access to visas has to remain a central plank in our collaborative efforts.
But what about all these newly blue constituencies in the Midlands and North of England, what will ensure they stop being ‘left behind’? On this front, to echo Tony Blair’s past mantra, I would say education, education, education. But it has to be education for a purpose. As Richard Jones has pointed out in his essay Resurgence of the Regions: rebuilding innovation capacity across the whole UK, low skills in such areas result in part from the absence of local jobs at which to aim. Why bother to upskill or study hard at school if there are no jobs waiting for you? Regeneration of these areas in tandem with thinking much harder (and investing more) in education and skills is needed. So, to add to the Christmas reading list we should probably be dusting off our copies of the Augar Review, remembering that university isn’t going to be the goal of every 16-year-old in the country. Further Education colleges rightly need to be reconsidered. Ensuring that this part of the educational ecosystem is fit for purpose, including being properly funded, is going to be a vital part of turning around those parts of the country not currently well-served by innovative local companies and jobs a-plenty.
In this context, I would add to my Christmas reading list the US report from the Brookings Institution The Case for Growth Centres: How to spread innovation across the US to join my (re) reading of Richard’s essay discussing related issues. Getting a grip on the ‘place’ agenda is going to be critical in reducing inequality across the UK. Unsurprisingly, the distribution of cities with thriving economies is comparably uneven in the US. Left behind towns and cities, in the Rust Belt for instance, old manufacturing towns whose livelihoods have faltered as the production of steel or cars has faded and moved elsewhere, are just as significant a social issue in the US (and equally contributing to the rise of populism) as over here. The Brookings Institution solution is to propose that huge sums of money should be invested into a few of these centres, carefully done so that the benefits diffuse widely away from the actual centre. This need for diffusion – in tandem with a workforce sufficiently skilled to provide the necessary absorptive capacity of money and innovation – is crucial if invested money is to impact on all those who need it. One of the challenges for the somewhat overheated city of Cambridge, is that its impact does not reach to Wisbech or Newmarket, let alone to Cromer and Lowestoft. The Combined Authority of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough is seriously impeded in its ability to transform the region by the huge discrepancies between the utterly different nature and economies of the cities of Cambridge and Peterborough and their surrounding fenland. There is simply no one-size-fits-all approach and therefore a lot of stasis, despite all the good intentions.
I come back to the importance of skills. The move to improve coding and IT skills in our schools, starting at a young age, is to be welcomed. It is vital that it isn’t simply middle-class kids who get given tablets at a young age and who thereby gain confidence in these areas. The robots may or may not be coming to take away all the lesser-skilled roles (actually not at all likely in areas like social care), but it is hard to imagine the workforce of the future being successful without computer-literacy of some sort, as well as literal literacy. Regrettably I don’t expect the new government to reinvent Sure Start, but the gap between the haves and the have-nots in education starts incredibly young.
If parents don’t have confidence in their own numeracy, literacy and IT skills, how can they facilitate their toddlers and young children not to be fearful of education. David Willetts, in his 2017 book A University Education, implied that pouring money into higher education was much better than, for instance, into the early years centres of Sure Start. I don’t buy his arguments (nor was I convinced by the evidence he adduced). I feel it begs the question of how an 18-year-old who has been consistently failed by the education system (possibly even permanently excluded) is going to want to be turned around and packed off to university, particularly if they are struggling with absolutely basic skills. And, if their whole family has been unemployed for years because of the local economy, what optimism can they have that it would be an investment of their time and money that will provide returns?
So, over Christmas, I will have plenty of reading to dig into. I need to improve my knowledge of the evidence base and comprehension of the political and economic landscape the general election has brought us and where we might be heading. I strongly believe it is not sufficient, as a well-heeled, middle class Oxbridge don, to bury my head in the sand and think ‘I’m all right Jack (or Boris)’. There will be many in those newly blue constituencies who may briefly be feeling optimistic. We, collectively across the sector, need to do our bit to ensure their optimism is justified.