I recently attended this year’s Conservative Party conference – their first since Theresa May took over from David Cameron in July.
It was clear in my conversations and in the events around Birmingham’s International Convention Centre that a new agenda is emerging. Outside of headlines around Brexit and immigration, the two words most commonly heard around the conference were “industrial strategy”. The new administration sees the development of a new industrial strategy as a pillar of their future economic plan: Jo Johnson, the minister for universities, science, research and innovation, described this as “the moment” to grasp the opportunities that such a strategy affords us.
It will also give us ample opportunity to highlight how important it is to increase our investment in research and development, and to show the essential role that physics plays in our economy and across our industries. Johnson recognised the need for the new strategy to be responsive and multidisciplinary, and to have a strong “place” dimension. He also stressed that the new UK Research and Innovation will have a significant part to play. The IOP will soon be demonstrating this with the launch of a report on the role of physics in the UK’s successful food manufacturing sector, and an updated set of reports into the impact of physics on the economy.
However, aside from a few fringe events on energy and digital technologies, there wasn’t much time for discussion on the detail of the government’s priorities. There was also very little said about universities, or about science more generally. Despite responsibility for higher education returning to the Department for Education, the word “university” was mentioned just six times during the speech by the new secretary of state for education, Justine Greening. UK science was referred to as “world leading” by the chancellor, Philip Hammond, in his, but, apart from an announcement of £220 m into tech-transfer and biotech innovation, there was no sign that it’s a priority.
In a number of meetings and events with Johnson, he showed that he was willing to take into account the views of higher education and science stakeholders. He acknowledged that more was needed than the guarantee by the Treasury to fund EU backed projects beyond Brexit, but couldn’t make any specific commitments.
A particular example was the repeated demands from many within higher education to guarantee to incoming EU students that their status would not change during their studies, irrespective of when we leave the European Union. Neither Johnson nor the schools minister, Nick Gibb, could provide this guarantee. Johnson said he was limited in his ability to further reassure on mobility “without weakening the government’s negotiating position”. Gibb stressed, however, that a solution would be found soon.
In general, messages coming out of the conference on membership of the European single market, free movement of people, universities’ ability to recruit international students and foreign-born staff working in UK companies may not have been completely reassuring to those in higher education or innovation.
The IOP will continue to engage with the government and other stakeholders during the process of leaving the European Union, and we are also closely involved with the progress of the Higher Education and Research Bill as it passes through the committee stage.