Labour’s life sciences approach may be caution as a policy choice

James Coe takes a look at the cautious competence of Labour’s life sciences plan and asks how different a Labour government’s approach to R&D policy might be

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

The major criticism of Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is that it is too cautious.

Starmer has inspired, or uninspired depending how you look at it, headlines asking whether he is too boring to be Prime Minister, he has rebuked his own cabinet to stop calling him boring, and former Labour spin-doctors have come out to dismiss his alleged dullness.

There’s lots of reasons behind this caricature. It’s partially media spin and concoction. It’s sort of who Starmer is as a professional bureaucrat. And it’s also partially politics. Starmer became Labour Party leader years out from a general election with no incentive to announce lots of new policy initiatives.

And Starmer is cautious because it is working. There is no historical precedent for Starmer to lose from his current poll lead. While there is significant attention on Starmer’s cautious temperament, it is underappreciated that caution is also a policy choice.

Plan for life sciences

The Labour Party has released its plans for life sciences. And while there are some new ideas it is effectively a repackaging of existing work, some ideas from the Nurse review, the Tickell review, and others bits and pieces of policy ephemera.

Its strength is that it feels both coherent and long-term. It’s reassuringly straightforward and unexciting. It promises some big things but does so in a way that makes them feel part of an overall plan. It is a document that will never win any votes, it will never be read beyond those already engaged in the life science debate, and it will never be printed on the side of a bus. It is a document which is one piece of a wider message of cautious competence.

The primary goal of a future Labour government is to achieve the highest sustained growth in the G7 with good jobs and productivity in every party of the country. It is within this frame that it is useful to view its plan for life sciences as an economic mission as much as it is a scientific one.

What’s new(ish)?

Labour’s science team has clearly been reading the spate of recent research reviews.

Borrowing from the Tickell review, Labour has promised it will “cut red tape and introduce a system of earned trust in place of retrospective and repetitive reporting and audit by government and UKRI.” Labour places reducing bureaucracy within the language of “agility”. Their idea is that if they are going to take advantage of new scientific breakthroughs and take part in solving unknowable future calamities they need a research bureaucracy which is equally flexible.

There is also a nod to the spin-out review. Labour wants to develop a new “founder-track” option for universities. What Labour seems to suggest is that in return for asking for a lower equity in a company a university would not be expected to offer the same kind of support if they had taken a higher equity.

This makes sense insofar as some spin-outs need more support than others. It makes less sense that the incentives for taking equity in a spin-out company are more about profitability and scale than they are support. As argued on Wonkhe the issue of equity is of course about ownership but it’s also about the wider ecosystem of funding and support to create larger spin-outs and make it less pressing for universities to take such a significant stake.

Planning reform

Reassuringly, Labour has something to say about innovation and planning reform.

One of the reasons, amongst many, the golden triangle is so successful is the clustering of great science assets. One of the reasons the golden triangle cannot expand and others cannot catch up is the lack of incentives or support to build new lab spaces. Labour proposes to include laboratory clusters within the scope of the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Regime in England and create new National Development Management Policies in favour of lab space. In short, these two measures tilt power away from local authorities in making planning decisions and embed a presumption in favour of approving the building of new lab spaces. It won’t be enough on its own to usher in a new era of lab building, but it’s a start.

Less reassuringly Labour is going to leave the R&D tax credit regime well alone. The streamlining of the R&D tax credit regime was a boon for larger companies and reduced the amount smaller companies could claim. The other issue with R&D tax credits is that they do not incentivise activity aligned to wider science missions. This document could have proposed specific R&D tax credits aligned to the kinds of sustainable growth the Labour party says it wants to achieve.

Old wine, new bottle

The biggest re-announcement is the goal of setting ten year budgets for major funding bodies including UKRI. Currently, DSIT is allocated funding for research through the spending review (roughly every 4 to 5 years, but has been variable during recent political turmoil) and budgets, and then the Secretary of State allocates some of this funding to UKRI.

UKRI’s last budget ran for the three years between 2022-23 and 2024-25. Over ten years it is hard to predict how the economy, society, or geopolitics will change, any of which may necessitate a tweak to UKRI’s budgets. And it is equally difficult to predict how existing research strengths will change or which new ones will emerge that will necessitate changes in allocation. Presumably, Labour will offer a minimum spending commitment over ten years rather than an immovable budget.

On other re-announcements, the apprenticeship levy will be reformed into the growth and skills levy. The idea here is that employers will be able to use half of their levy allocation to spend on non-apprentice training. In theory, this could be used to support more training for the life sciences workforce. In practice, given the already low levels of in-work training in the UK, it’s hard to imagine how this will be used constructively without significant further reform and upheaval to a scheme which has been marred by reform and upheaval.

All of this will be governed as part of Labour’s wider industrial strategy with the Life Sciences Council reporting into the Industrial Strategy Council. Again, reinforcing Life Sciences as part of Labour’s overall economic mission.

Head and heart

In total, it is a policy document that has a lot of things to like. It also has ideas which aren’t fully fleshed out or are likely as far reaching as many in the science community would like. And the overall theme is that where there is uncertainty the Labour Party will bring. Longer budgets. Less reforms of the wiring. And more alignment between life sciences and other policy goals.

The strength of the document is that it speaks to a research reality many will recognise. The challenge is whether it will be far-reaching enough to achieve the enormous aim of achieving the highest sustained growth in the G7.

And this is the central tension of cautious competence in research policy. Changing the research landscape requires bringing universities, business, civic actors, research institutes, government departments, funders, and many others on the journey. Intellectually the policy ideas make sense. Emotionally, it is less clear how Labour will inspire a whole range of actors behind a few key missions.

One response to “Labour’s life sciences approach may be caution as a policy choice

  1. I agree that it’s a good document. However, the founder’s track is not such a good idea. Linking founding equity shares with levels of university support often ends in tears, in my experience.
    Firstly, it incentivises founders to forego university support because a larger equity stake seems more enticing. We have very few repeat founders in the UK, and so the research team almost certainly don’t understand the choice being made.
    Later down the line they realise that some support would actually be helpful and coming knocking at the technology transfer door. So, secondly, the TTO often ends up helping them anyway. They might feel morally obliged, be pressured by senior leaders (rarely), or simply want to see a spinout succeed. TTOs are motivated by seeing science get out into the world and businesses succeed.
    Let’s stick with the recommendations of the Spinout Review, adopt terms similar to those in the USIT guide and work within an agreed range or parameters. Removing ‘level of support’ as a parameter choice.

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