A positive politics will maximise the positive outcomes of science, technology, and innovation

A new approach to R&D and STEMM is possible. With new levels of investment and collaboration

Executive summary

Politicians and professionals need to find new positive ways of communicating the outcomes of research and development (R&D) and all areas of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) for people, places, and solving society’s long-term challenges. Investment, policy, and communication should focus on achieving those positive outcomes for people’s lives and local areas—if there’s any chance of breaking though the negative, divisive politics we’re currently surrounded by. 2024’s incoming UK Government should immediately develop clear, long-term, and cross-party investments, regulations, and roadmaps to maximise these positive outcomes.

Recently the Liberal Democrats in STEMM, as well as a team of parliamentarians, policy officials, and other party representatives met with The Royal Society and the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) to discuss the importance of R&D and the whole STEMM spectrum. Three core reports were used to lead the discussion: The Royal Society’s Manifesto for Science; The Royal Society’s Mathematical Futures Programme; and CaSE’s study of Public Attitudes to R&D.

This report covers five areas discussed in detail:

  1. The importance of science and policy in government, the civil service, and society
  2. Embedding “applied maths” throughout education
  3. The role of government: long-termism and collaboration
  4. Rethinking industrial strategy and technology roadmaps: vision, not prescription
  5. Public opinion and communication: focusing on outcomes, lives, and local areas

Opportunities for politics and the Liberal Democrats emerged by combining and digesting these themes:

  1. Positive politics: communicating the positive outcomes of R&D, science, and all STEMM in a free and fair society with real equality of opportunity.
  2. Treating education with respect and collaborating throughout education ecosystems.
  3. Long term approaches, consistency, and developing evidence-informed policy. 
  4. Collaboration. Real Collaboration. Including with Europe. 
  5. Industrial strategy and the climate emergency: investment should focus on outcomes, not isolated headline policy.

At the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in York this March, our policy working groups will present papers on 1. Science, Innovation, and Technology and 2. The Future of Work for consultation: you can also contribute beforehand here

This report is the work of the author and the Liberal Democrats in STEMM; it does not express the formal recommendations of the Royal Society or the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

  1. The importance of science and policy—in government, the civil service, and across society

Most all countries, including the UK, see a low number of civil servants and politicians with STEMM backgrounds. An MP once lamented to me the shocking level of basic data literacy (interpreting bar or line charts, for example) of many MPs, new and old. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted that science, data, and politics working together is a literal matter of life and death. That importance holds true in all policy areas from housing, to welfare, to the environment, and beyond.

Continuing with the pandemic as an example, there should be no doubt as to the importance of innovation based often on decades of R&D and STEMM efforts (and disciplines beyond the traditional STEMM subjects for that matter). Vaccine development was built on decades of science, technology, engineering, and medicine. Maths is of course vital throughout those four areas. Many small contributions, when called upon, were rapidly brought together to save so many lives around the world. But science, innovation, and R&D are not taps that can (or should) be turned on and off on the short-term whims of politicians. 

Research far beyond the public and political eye provides the building blocks of solutions to global problems. 

Basic and applied research are the foundations of major improvements to people and places—to lives and local areas. But people and communities are often unaware of the benefit. That is a failure of politics and science to communicate. To connect R&D and STEMM to positive outcomes.

Focusing on the outcomes of R&D and STEMM for lives and local areas is also a way of proofing against civil servants and politicians having technical expertise in every area they engage with. On some level, how often would a minister or official be a genuine technical authority. But more on that later.

On civil service recruitment and getting more politicians with STEMM backgrounds, while the civil service could consider moves like expanding its Science and Engineering Fast Stream graduate programme, and overseas organisations like 314 in the US actively try to find STEMM professionals and recruit them to politics, the solution for the most part exists on a population wide basis—in education especially. 

  1. Embedding “applied maths” throughout education

Targeted civil service recruitment and increasing schools’ focus on STEMM subjects will only ever have a marginal improvement on the STEMM literacy of civil servants and politicians, by improving the chance that more technical experts enter these roles. 

The UK Government should develop a more complete, broad, and balanced education system for England. 

For example, children at the age of 13 or 14 when choosing GCSE subjects shouldn’t already be limiting their life paths by say, dropping history or art (in my case, dropping the former but sticking with the latter). Then at A Level limiting themselves to 3 or 4 subjects. Even our university system often hyper-specialises from day one, versus the usual US system of 2 years of general education to start a degree. 

Any education reform has to start with collaboration. 

Talk to teachers. What would the ideal education system in 10 years look like? Everyone agrees on “different”, so that’s a starting point. Talk to parents. To children. To Councils, Governors, and everyone else in the education ecosystem. The last thing education needs are more “big bang” reforms—there’s already plenty of disruption for teachers (without counting Ofsted inspection demands and failings). 

The UK now sits 17th in maths in the OECD. It used to be number 7. But while it’s tempting to throw financial and teaching resources at improving exam results in “pure maths”, we should be thinking “what do people need?” in making day-to-day decisions like budgeting or interpreting news, through to larger life decisions like planning pensions and managing investments, in technical professions, or for a deep-dive career into academia or research. A compelling case was made at our visit to the Royal Society for a separate form of applied maths to be taught and not graded, as pure maths currently is—for one, to not tell so many children from a young age, “you’re terrible at maths so don’t bother”. We don’t have that approach to reading and writing…

Embedding maths—including data, statistics, computer science, artificial intelligence, and so on—throughout education would be a start. 

For example, interpreting census data on religious beliefs over time; exploring the history of STEMM subjects; the physics of the world (common in geography, and, naturally, in physics); connecting engineering and design aspects with art and graphics.

To make any of this work, we need a shift from short-term policy fixes to long-term planning and funding. That message goes far beyond education.

  1. The role of government: long-termism and collaboration

For many postgraduate and postdoctoral research careers, the processes of applying for positions and funding can take up vast amounts of time over the early 10 years or so of a career. Episodic funding doesn’t help in academia. Nor does it help across the R&D and STEMM ecosystem. Every government budget and spending review means change in resources and direction. The very antithesis of long-term planning that provides consistency and confidence to industries and researchers.

It’s a very uncertain world in general. So what can we do when it comes to the medium and long term? 

In short, we can differentiate and focus clearly across the spectrum of initiatives that are “no and low regrets”, “high risk, high return” and the space in between.

Maths education, for example, is a low/no-risk investment. The future (and now) will demand all forms of skills in data, statistics, computer science, AI, and beyond in differing levels. From higher numeracy levels in the population through to higher proportions of civil servants and politicians with key skills, it’s a win all around for long term investment. The same goes for literacy. Promoting student resilience and adaptability. (Coming back to what a 10+ year vision might be). Maths and broader education investment will also help to heal the STEMM/non-STEMM divide, whether in society or the civil service and politics.

Some will ask, “why spend on STEMM instead of other things like the NHS, cost of living crisis, and so on…?” But it doesn’t have to be either-or. 

STEMM is fundamentally embedded in everything. It’s our communication of that fact that has failed. We’ll come to communication and the language of investing in R&D in the final section. But aside from the debate about the exact level of spending, having a 10-year long-term plan for STEMM and broader R&D funding will mean the most efficient use of the resources available. 

Beyond schools, we need a more financially sustainable science sector with sustainable funding. Look at universities, where not only does R&D happen but as institutions they act as anchors in local industrial ecosystems and whole communities. Complex funding structures pile pressures on universities recruiting international students (and their fees). Given the government’s current stance on visas… we’re now seeing further unnecessary pressure on university finance.

UK R&D funding currently comes from three approximately equal buckets: government, private sector, and overseas investment. We need a policy landscape that maximises the latter two. The UK needs to develop efficient structures that make the most of what taxpayer money is available. So what is the role of the state? And industrial strategy?

For one, there’s a gap in the “scale-up phase” of innovation. Recent pension fund reforms are welcome, that will allow them to invest in riskier but potentially high-reward ventures. But the challenge of putting policy into action remains. R&D tax credits are a good example. Our discussion at the Royal Society mulled over how HMRC, by and large, does not have the technical expertise to decide what counts as “R&D worth subsidising”—reducing the effectiveness of the system. 

Tata Steel’s recent decision to move from blast to electric arc furnaces in Port Talbot typifies a lack of long-term thinking. And it’s a case that leads us onto the discussion of industrial policy and technology roadmaps. 

  1. Rethinking industrial strategy and technology roadmaps: vision, not prescription

It is beyond poor that no long-term plan is in place between the government and TATA to transition in a way that avoids 1000s of layoffs in such a short timeframe—whether that’s by retraining people within TATA or the local steel supply chain of tens of thousands of jobs. A steel “technology roadmap” for the UK would certainly help in signalling the UK’s priorities to business and investors. As well as providing consistency. However, our current political landscape is far away from consistent in its language and policy. Affecting all sectors.

On industrial strategy more broadly, a recent trend in the UK seems to suggest a desire to match the state-subsidy power of the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the EU’s Green Deal, or China’s highly centralised approach. The UK cannot hope to match these levels of subsidy and nor should it. But what it can do is take the best from these strategies and improve. 

Maximising the good of markets, openness, innovation, and globalisation—while stepping in as policymakers when those markets don’t work, and ensuring they work for the least advantaged. The very foundations of a free, fair, and equal society. Liberal Democrat approaches are tailor made for this.

But where is the market failing? 

That point lies somewhere in between “sure thing” efforts like heat pump rollouts which are almost certain to make up a large part of our energy future (albeit the industry needs a level of help including on skills and financial assistance for those unable to currently pay the installation costs while they remain high) and longer-term risk like nuclear fusion.

National technology roadmaps can help to get those who need to align, aligned. 

Those roadmaps should not, however, be overly prescriptive and proverbially “picking winners”. They should combine market signals and collaboration between the public and private sector including the research and university systems. Investment signals can also promote the broad research base across UK: photonics in Glasgow, chips in south Wales, maritime technology on the south coast, and much more. 

Questions arise over how to balance the centralisation vs dispersion of R&D strategy—and balance between basic research (a “1000 flowers blooming” approach) and applied research. Some would say all research is applied you just don’t know the application yet (another note for section 5 to deal with). How do we also prevent companies holding the government hostage on investment and jobs? A starting point would be limiting handouts to profitable firms and industry. And rather, government investment can be focused on helping firms and technologies getting over the rate-of-return hurdle should the outcomes align with the direction of the overarching roadmaps (like decarbonising to net-zero by 2050, say). Especially where the market fails the least advantaged on health disparities, social care, the cost of decarbonisation, and more. 

Bodies like UKRI could be given more autonomy to come to the government and set their own course—built around a broader national vision—especially when the people in the centre don’t have the technical expertise to make decisions, especially in thinking through speculative or “building blocks” basic research (like the parts that came together to produce covid vaccines). We need to bridge the gap. Politicians and civil servants don’t need every scrap of technical expertise if collaboration is transparency, and brings together a diverse set of people, from the most diverse groups possible, into the right rooms. The government can also aim to release funding based on outcomes and solving problems that are connected to people’s lives and local areas. 

Long term investment can become a source of cross-party collaboration. 

Supermajorities could be one solution to agreeing long-term protected investments, regulation, and plans to combat challenges like climate change and other big problems and trends. That does, however, become a question of constitutional reform—for example, do we enshrine some long-term legislation with a 2/3rds majority? So it can’t be changed at the drop of a hat without deep discussion and consensus? It would providing greater certainty to industry and investors. While improving collaboration throughout all stakeholders at the same time.

We should be clear on the roles of private, public, and foreign investment (currently making up a third each, approximately, of R&D investment). For government, that can include “pulling through investment” for example by procurement “offtake” agreements where the government will buy an amount of output to secure investment viability. A similar approach often taken by DARPA in the US. 

But contradicting signals currently fuel uncertainty and frustration. Re-joining Horizon but simultaneously making visas tougher, is one instance. And the views from those with current and past experience suggests a broader lack of communication throughout government. The Department for Science and Technology is not talking to anyone else, it seems.

  1. Public opinion and communication: focusing on outcomes, lives, and local areas

CaSE’s recent public opinion study covered 18,000 people and held 14 in depth focus groups on public attitudes towards R&D.

While 70% of respondents, across the political spectrum, thought government R&D investment is important, over a third found very few or no ways R&D improved their lives, with “there are more pressing issues” resonating strongly throughout the study.

R&D is also seen as important but not urgent—somewhat of a luxury, even post-pandemic—with many seemingly holding a view that science can be brought out-of-the-box when needed.

Politicians and professionals must communicate better and link R&D, science, and all STEMM to people’s lives and local areas. 

Communicating a purpose. Talking about positive investment rather than a more negative tone of spending. Incorporating place-based approaches whether that’s research or industrial clusters, or building labs in high streets (most would be in favour, it turns out). Job creation and developing STEMM skills through education are also universally popular. 

In short, the outcomes of R&D are popular. 

R&D and STEMM are seen as important to regions and communities. It should be a priority. When framed well.

Conclusions: opportunities for the Liberal Democrats

Combining and digesting the five tangents of our discussion with the Royal Society and the Campaign for Science and Engineering, five opportunities for the Liberal Democrats emerge:

  1. Positive politics: communication of R&D, science, and all STEMM in a free, fair, and equal society

What does everything discussed in this report mean for people and places? What positive outcomes can we reach and what problems can we solve? When we’re surrounded by such a negative, divisive politics, the onus is on Liberal Democrats to shift the dial towards a positive politics—a politics that shows the freedom, fairness, and equality that we stand for. Including real equality of opportunity which R&D, science, and STEMM can contribute to across all factors from health, to housing, to environment, to work, to education, and so much more.

  1. Treating education with respect

Whether in maths, STEMM, or throughout the whole of education, Liberal Democrats are putting the positive case across for investing in our children and our teachers. Investing in education—especially maths, literacy, and STEMM—is a sure win for public money. Building a more numerate and literate population ready for the changing demands of work—be that data analysis, the use of statistics, or the emergence of AI. But rather than big sudden changes, collaborating throughout the education ecosystem is a must, asking teachers and pupils “what do you want?” or “what would you like education to look like ten years from now?”

  1. Long term approaches, consistency, and evidence

R&D and all STEMM are shouting at government for consistency, evidence-based policy, and confidence (in both directions!). Currently, there’s very little of any of that. Roadmaps and visions for the country’s direction involving technology and all parts of the STEMM sectors will send the right signals without overly picking winners or restricting innovation. To ensure this, again, collaboration is fundamental…

  1. Collaboration. Real Collaboration. Including in Europe

Whether it’s education, industry, investment, or internally in government, collaboration cannot be a token effort. It must involve the broadest diverse range of stakeholders and experts possible united around outcomes and problems. That collaboration is must from the level of an individual school ecosystem, through the Europe and the world. To reuse an example from this report, fixing the clash between visa restrictions and the re-joining of a programme like Horizon. The Liberal Democrat roadmap to re-joining the single market perfectly maps out collaboration opportunities across R&D, science, and all STEMM for the UK and its closest available partners.

  1. Industrial strategy and the climate emergency: investment should focus on outcomes, not isolated headline policy.

Rather than falling into the trap of matching the subsidy power of the US, EU, or China—or for that matter, the narratives of the Labour and Conservative parties that the UK can match that state spending power—we should be ultra-clear on where government investment is best placed: where the market fails, specifically where the least advantaged are failed; where the market needs a push towards being commercially sustainable, say in the technologies well placed to achieve positive societal outcomes and solve problems; and where investment generates income, whether that’s by increased tax returns through wages, wealth, and spending or directly through investments in energy generation (but energy infrastructure might be the wiser investment… for other experts to collaborate and figure out!). The same mantra applies to addressing the climate and sustainability emergency: a need to focus on the integrated outcomes across the spectrum of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals: including decarbonisation, environment, social justice, economic stability, and much more.

Contribute to Liberal Democrat policy on 1. Science, Innovation, and Technology, and 2. The Future of Work

At the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in York this March, our Science, Innovation, and Technology and Future of Work policy working groups will present papers for consultation in a collaborative session open to all party members. You can also contribute beforehand, read the papers, and submit email contributions here: 



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