16 August 2019

Innovation is the key to the UK’s prosperity – Boris must invest in it


Boris Johnson’s announcement of visa prioritisation for scientists can initiate an innovation revolution in the UK. Investment in infrastructure is not just about bricks and mortar.  Britain’s success over the centuries was driven by its intellectual infrastructure –in the Enlightenment; the Industrial Revolution; in so many scientific advances in the 20th Century; and in the innovation that drives our current position as the financial capital of  Europe. There’s a wealth of opportunities for the government to support a further revolution in our intellectual infrastructure.

Our universities already dominate the European academic space for basic science; our innovation –whether in basic scientific discoveries and their applied development at various universities, or in the number of patent-protected venture capital start-ups, in University science parks and in innovation hubs like Shoreditch– continues to surpass, by an order of magnitude, what is accomplished in any other European country.

But we should not be complacent. There is always more that can and should be done, and even a glance at the innovative patents, products and technology coming out of the US should stir us to action.The best way to strengthen our intellectual infrastructure – and thereby secure our future prosperity – is by investing across the board in Science education: at A-level, at Undergraduate, and at Post-graduate levels. In this way might we reverse recent regrettable trends in our universities towards soft subjects, soft scientific research, and PC non-science science.

In recent decades the UK’s scientific capabilities have been shrinking. Scientific departments at some universities have been closed down. Our best academic scientists get headhunted off to the US. All this threatens the country’s ability to innovate which in turn makes it more difficult to grow the economy. Boris Johnson has spotted this trend, and seeks to reverse it: but more than a visa program for scientists is needed.  We have to create more, and better, academic infrastructure to fit these new bright academics into. A tailored investment approach, focused on enlarging the UK’s competence in hard scientific fields, could pay enormous dividends over the coming post-Brexit years.

Pre-University: support and develop the brightest science students 

The UK now has a mere two sixth-form Mathematics Free Schools: at Kings College London, and at Exeter.  The best local student mathematicians go to these schools post-GCSE to get a top-class hot-housed education in mathematics. Recently, these two schools were the number 1 and 2 top-performing A-level sixth forms in the country. But only budding maths geniuses in London or Exeter can go to those two schools. Why not, then, urgently initiate more such Maths Free Schools, across the UK in the major cities such as Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle, Leeds, Birmingham, and elsewhere?

And why stop at Maths? Why not also open similar specialist sixth-form colleges for other hard STEM/Physical Sciences subjects? A few Academy chains are slowly venturing into this space: East Anglia’s Inspiration Trust recently opened its Isaac Newton Sixth Form Maths and Science school: its a-level results, announced this week, saw a slew of successful students from one of the poorest catchment areas in the UK snap up places at top science universities.

Encouraging talented students to focus on the hard physical sciences, and creating  areas of applied scientific excellence in numerous cities and towns across the country, could boost the potential for future scientific breakthroughs in the UK.  But for this to happen, the funding disparity between pupils pre- and post-GCSE has to be addressed. The financial per-pupil support for post-GSCE students in the UK is, short-sightedly, much lower than per-pupil up to GCSE – so starting a new Sixth Form College is currently really tough. It’s no wonder there aren’t many around. Increasing Sixth Form per-pupil funding would be a much better funding policy than evenly spreading the extra money between every school in England and Wales, many of whom are managing to do fine on the money they have.

At undergraduate level: provide incentives for studying STEM 

Science/STEM places at university level are shrinking as a proportion of the total, when compared to trendier, less useful undergraduate subjects. Worse, many UK university places in science are now being taken up by overseas students.  Most of those students, we have learnt –contrary to Mrs May’s flawed analysis when she was at the Home Office– return to their home countries after graduating. Thus we are failing to grow rapidly the stock of UK-trained UK scientists. This cannot be allowed to go on; future UK innovation and economic growth depends on a solid and growing base of trained young scientists living and working in the UK.

Having our government interfere, with preferential treatment for some subjects over others, has long been seen as inappropriate. There is however already near-universal agreement that the more hard STEM subjects need to be prioritised over the host of more dubious degree qualifications springing up in recent years. There can be no obvious objection to financial incentives for students to go for these harder subjects.  Why not tell undergraduates in certain STEM subjects at the top 50 universities that if they place in the top 25% of their graduating class, they would have £5,000 deducted from whatever student debt they have accumulated, so long as they stay in the UK?

Post-Graduate: establish new hard science departments across the UK

The number of hard science departments, and sub-departments, in Universities across the country, could and should be significantly expanded. Take the nexus of Physics/Chemistry/Bioscience as an example.  There are an enormous number of scientific challenges for the world that these disciplines can and must solve – to the great benefit of the planet as a whole and economic growth for the country that develops the solutions. The government could, for example, fund half a dozen or more new departments of Physical Science across the UK. Those in charge of government grant giving should be careful to avoid those Universities where the ‘Woke’ crowd have captured Science departments –(Feminist Glaciology, anyone?)— which hardly represent a good investment of taxpayers’ money.

Each such new department could focus purely on one tight area: for example environmentally acceptable substitutes for Plastic; Materials for 3D printing; Biomarker identification; ocean research on pollution and overfishing; 6G communications; scientific solutions to global warming.

The UK has a unique opportunity to re-purpose old North Sea platforms for carbon capture; and we’re already investigating iron ocean fertilisation which reduces atmospheric CO2, while simultaneously enhancing ocean life. Interventionist scientific solutions to climate change such as these are likely to be the only ones that actually make a difference. Those who advocate zero carbon solutions make the headlines, but this will be impossible to achieve at a time when a new coal-fired generation plant is added in China each week –while we foolishly transfer our energy-intensive UK industries to China–  and when the planet faces the impending electrification of that vast continent, Africa.  To counteract the effect of CO2, only some form of direct scientific intervention in the atmosphere or the oceans will bring us a workable solution. UK scientists could be at the vanguard of this, and setting up new hard sciene departments in universities across the UK could kick-start a revolutionary wave of innovation in the UK. These departments, would, with the PM’s new visa initiative, attract top-class researchers from all over the world, and help add to Britain’s already impressive intellectual infrastructure.

Jon Moynihan is a director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence.