Will UK Labour’s research policy be tame or transformational?

Labour’s official science slate is dull but radical moves to reform research funding and engage industry could be close, experts believe

May 30, 2024
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer gives a speech at the National Composites Centre in the Bristol & Bath Science Park on January 4, 2024 in Bristol, United Kingdom to illustrate Labour and research
Source: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Lacking any sort of rhetorical flourish akin to the “science superpower” mantra embraced by the Conservatives of late, Labour’s electoral offer on UK research is decidedly low-key.

Stressing stability and continuity, its main policy promise is to offer 10-year budgets to UK Research and Innovation and the Advanced Research and Invention Agency – carefully avoiding saying whether these institutions can expect any meaningful funding increase. Other policies include a “system of earned trust [for researchers] in place of repetitive paperwork and endless box ticking” and a vow to “increase the number of university spinouts” – hardly the “double the science budget” or the US-style “high-risk, high-reward” research agency promised by Boris Johnson in 2019.

For some, this measured approach suggests Labour will play it safe on science if it is elected, even with a thumping majority, next month.

“It’s been unusual just how much science and tech has been to the fore in the last parliament, though some will argue there’s been a lot of bombast and not much delivery,” said James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at UCL.

“I feel we’re entering a quieter, less headline-grabbing era in research and innovation – that doesn’t mean it’s less important, but there could be more substance [to policy] and less shouting about it,” added Professor Wilsdon, who predicted few seismic policies on science would appear in forthcoming manifestos.

“That’s frustrating for some people, because elections are normally the time to push more ambitious ideas into the mix, but that’s all been constrained by spending promises,” he said.

However, not everyone is so convinced that a Labour government is gearing up for a first term of office devoid of radical reform. Waiting in the sidelines are several Labour-linked thinktanks with some bold plans to transform how research is done.

Of these, the increasingly technology-focused Tony Blair Institute (TBI) is the largest and most prominent; it has published several reports on research, life sciences and artificial intelligence, and its director of government innovation, Jeegar Kakkad, has also been working part-time in Keir Starmer’s office.

While Labour has steered clear of any major spending commitments, the TBI has been less cautious. In its flagship policy document, A New National Purposepublished in February 2023, it recommends that the “state must view R&D funding as an investment with strong returns and not a sunk cost”, with a June 2023 update on AI adding that a “multi-decade investment in science and technology infrastructure as well as talent and research programmes” was vital, and should include “reprioritising large amounts of capital expenditure to this task”. For instance, the £900 million secured for an exascale supercomputer is described as a “step in the right direction” but “is too small given the scale of impending change”.

Other TBI ideas include a new national AI laboratory called Sentinel to replace the Alan Turing Institute, a new “disruptive innovation lab” called the Laboratory of Biodesign and a new science and technology policy and delivery unit in Downing Street to “devise disruptive policy proposals” and “empower delivery and unblock problems”.

“It’s very pro-growth, pro-science and infused by the techno-optimism we saw under the Blair government that technology can fix a lot of problems,” explained a Labour insider. “But I’m not sure they’re as involved with Labour as they’d like and there’s some frustration that they’re not connected in the way they should be.”

Other thinktanks such as the UK Day One Project, which has called for a youth mobility scheme, partly to attract scientific talent, are seeking to influence the conversation, while Scientists for Labour remains active.

However, Labour Together – the thinktank previously run by Morgan McSweeney, Mr Starmer’s chief of staff – is thought to hold most sway on the party’s science policy; indeed some regard it simply as an extension of Labour itself.

“It’s quite a different institution to the TBI – it’s very close to the party and entirely staffed by those who are known and trusted by Labour,” explained a policy adviser, who likened its role to that of a “Fabian Society for science”.

Labour Together’s work on industrial strategy is firmly in step with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’ discussion of this subject, with her “Securonomics” agenda likely to lead to significant research and development investments in prioritised industries such as clean energy, digital and advanced manufacturing.

Anna Valero, director of the Growth Programme at the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance, whose research was referenced in Ms Reeves’ Mais lecture in March, believes Labour’s embrace of industrial strategy will have implications for research spending.

“Some people see areas of agreement between Rachel Reeves and Jeremy Hunt on growth policy, but industrial strategy will be a key point of difference,” said Dr Valero. In practice, it will mean “identifying comparative advantages in key sectors that are the UK’s enduring strengths, including in finance, professional services, creative and life sciences as well as other areas of advanced manufacturing such as clean tech, and implementing a national framework to support these sectors”, she explained.

“Universities underlie the strength of many of these sectors so they’ll play a role but the more mission-led approach to policy should also mean a better coordination of policy levers, such as regulation and procurement, as well as research grants and targeted incentives for R&D investment from industry,” continued Dr Valero.

While Labour has walked back its pledge to invest £28 billion in green energy, “there is still a commitment to increase public sector investment, including via GB Energy and the National Wealth Fund, and some of that is likely to support innovation in the UK”, she noted on the potential for increased research spending.

Directing more research and development funds towards chosen technologies could also be accompanied by a shift towards increased place-based funding, others believe. “If Labour is serious about Gordon Brown’s localism agenda, it makes sense to just give R&D money to Andy Burnham and other metro mayors and let them decide how to spend it,” a government adviser told Times Higher Education.

“That would probably help newer universities more than the Research Excellence Framework currently does as they couldn’t give it all to, say, Manchester, Sheffield or Newcastle.”

Kieron Flanagan, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, felt that that idea had merit. “Regions know their strengths and needs better than Whitehall and could spend research money better, but this kind of change won’t happen. The forces of centralisation are so strong and, if he proposed it, Peter Kyle would get attacked by the university lobby for supposedly destroying the goose that lays the golden egg,” said Professor Flanagan of any reduction in research spending for the “golden triangle” of London, Oxford and Cambridge.

“If you did want a green industrial revolution or to close the productivity gap, then you’d need more R&D investment, but you’d also need to reduce the quality-related research concentration in our country.  Without this, we’ll continue our slow march of mediocrity [on innovation], but I can’t see this changing under Labour.”


Prospective Labour MPs with a research background

Kanishka Narayan – Vale of Glamorgan
Born and raised in Cardiff, Mr Narayan went to Eton College on a scholarship (he stresses his parents did not pay) before studying at the University of Oxford and Stanford University. A former Stanford research fellow, he has worked in fintech and climate start-ups for a Californian venture capital firm, been a senior adviser in the Cabinet Office and head of technology policy for Labour. If he overturns a 3,562 Conservative majority, he will become the first Welsh MP from an ethnic minority.

Jeevun Sandher – Loughborough
The head of economics at the New Economics Foundation, the University of Nottingham graduate recently took a PhD at King’s College London on how technology has affected income inequality in the UK. He has also worked as an economist at the Treasury under George Osborne and in Somaliland. He is tipped to overturn a 7,169 majority in a seat held by the Tories since 2010.

Sam Rushworth – Bishop Auckland
With a background in international development, the former university tutor works as a research and development programme manager at Durham University. Labour will be confident of retaking a seat that turned blue for the first time in 2019, with current Conservative MP Dehenna Davison not running for re-election.

Marie Tidball – Penistone and Stocksbridge
The Barnsley-born disability campaigner has a DPhil in criminology from the University of Oxford, where she runs the university’s Disability and Law Project, which aims to “bring new perspectives to disability and law”. Dr Tidball is favourite to win the South Yorkshire seat taken by New Conservatives chair Miriam Cates with a 7,208 majority in 2019.

Alex Bulat – Huntingdon
The idea of Labour winning Huntingdon, where John Major racked up a 36,000 majority in 1992 – and where the Tories hold a near-20,000 advantage – might seem absurd. But boundary changes, a new out-of-town Tory candidate and two prominent local Conservatives standing for Reform and as an independent mean Labour’s Alex Bulat – a Romanian-born social scientist with degrees from UCL and the universities of Cambridge and Sussex – could pull off an unlikely victory.


Print headline: Will Labour’s research policy be safe or radical?

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Reader's comments (2)

'Tame or transformational'? Not trustworthy.
We don't need massive radicalism - just a change to the irrationality whereby researchers can spend more time on applying for research grants than on actually doing some research. And nationalise the journals so ridiculous prices aren't charged for online access to one article, just because they can because paper library journals don't exist anymore.