At the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee

There was a lot of uncertainty over government science policy in evidence at a House of Lords committee hearing

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

The word “soon” was doing a lot of heavy lifting at the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee meeting on Tuesday. Staff from DfE, BEIS and the Home Office got the chance to talk about their plans for science without being drawn on exactly when many of the important questions would be resolved.

The committee has been pursuing an inquiry into people and skills in UK STEM over the autumn, calling on a packed roster of the great and the good from across the sector, exploring a number of important questions around training, teaching, recruitment and the possibility that the UK can really achieve its “science superpower” ambitions while pursuing Brexit and talking tough on immigration. All in all, it’s been an excellent series – and on Tuesday it was the turn of the responsible government departments to say their piece.

DfE’s Paul Kett – Director General for Skills – promised a response to the LLE consultation soon. BEIS’ Isabel Allgeyer – Deputy Director, Research Talent and European Programmes – said that longer term planning for Plan B to Horizon non-association would be coming soon.

Responding to rumours that Plan B funding is on the firing line as the government looks to make spending cuts, Allgeyer didn’t exactly project optimism:

We currently have a multi-year settlement […] Clearly there are reviews ongoing on wider government finances.

But at least she recognised that ongoing delays over association to Horizon and to Plan B implementation alike are “damaging to the sector”.

Previous episodes of the inquiry have seen particular ire directed towards the high upfront costs associated with visas for scientists, academics and students, including the NHS surcharge.

Speaking for the Home Office, Philippa Rouse claimed – flying in the face of much of the evidence presented in earlier sessions – that costs in the UK were comparable to elsewhere, and that it would be too complicated to manage the costs in any other way than fully upfront. This of course is not good news for someone on a five year contract with a family in tow.

Rouse repeatedly made the case that the government wants to ensure that the visa and immigration system pays for itself, and its running costs are reflected in the charges made to those coming to the UK.

This presented the panellists with the perfect opportunity to get topical and ask whether that meant that a researcher wanting to come to the UK is being expected to contribute to the costs of running migrant processing centres and providing temporary accommodation for those seeking asylum. The response that there is “an element of border control” in the fees paid did not inspire much confidence.

On the DfE end, the laser focus is on higher technical skills. Paul Kett cryptically noted that the apprenticeship levy was not being reviewed “per se”, but recognised its unpopularity in some quarters.

It’s noticeable that the inquiry has had two very different through lines – one on technical skills and apprenticeships, one on attracting and producing scientists for international competitiveness. The gulf between DfE and BEIS – and the Home Office, and the Department for Levelling Up, and so on – is increasingly clear, and the time when a minister straddled departments to ensure some joined up thinking was going on seems a distant memory.

It is of course unsurprising that at this exact moment there is little scope for cross-departmental big thinking, with no clear DfE ministerial briefs, two science ministers for whom the “precise scope of portfolio is still coming together” – as BEIS told us earlier today, and as reported in the Telegraph. But increasingly the separation and confusion feels like a baked in feature of the government’s attitude to science and education, rather than a glitch that will be ironed out with time.

One enjoyable question was whether the government was considering giving catapults a greater role in apprenticeships – it was noticeable that no one was really sure who would answer this. DfE “would be very interested to read more on this”, and BEIS had nothing to add other than “it’s an important area of collaboration”.

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