Science, research, and innovation hustings

What happened at the Royal Society

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Unsurprisingly, Chi Onwurah was not going to be drawn on which “key institutions” would benefit from a decade of funding stability.

She gave UKRI as an unsurprising example of the kind of things Labour is thinking about, though she was keen to stress that a decision has not been made on every institution. She even invited suitable bodies to make themselves known, meaning a lot of people made a bee-line for her circle at the drinks reception of the science, technology, and innovation hustings put on for our collective edification by the four national academies, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, and the Foundation for Science and Technology.

In Financial Times journalist Anji Ahuja she faced a skilled and knowledgeable chair who was very keen to tie her down to specifics (she even asked “which institutions would not be included?”) to little avail. The excellent question from the floor – clearly the thing on the minds of most attendees – also sought clarity on the purpose of setting a ten year budget when each parliament cannot bind its successor.

On that we got a little more information – though the lucky institutions would get a nominal 10 year budget, in practice this would arrive in yearly increments (so, no spending it all at once). The interpolation of an election around the end of the decade, would – to Onwurah – simply give other parties the chance to commit (or not) to the budget.

Viscount Camrose (the Conservative “Minister for AI”) wasn’t a fan of locking in spending plans, emphasising the need to be adaptive to the rapidly changing pace of technological change. This, along with AI, was a preoccupation of his. Challenged on Rishi Sunak’s apparent lack of interest in campaigning on his science policy, he outed the Prime Minister as a “techbro” (which he took to mean someone who understands the impact of science).

“Techbro” has, of course, also suggests other qualities – not least a desire to promote the potential of one’s technological predilection far beyond the evidence that currently exists. It was a false equivalence to expect him to choose between AI and Net Zero, he sniffed. AI, he informed us with all the confidence of a man with a bridge to sell you, was a “big part of the solution” to Net Zero – indeed, there was no problem that humans were working on that could not be addressed by the power of AI. Burning carbon to ensure Jim Dickinson can use those article pictures with too many fingers is a very strange hill to die on.

But not as strange as a disdain for “media studies”. Forgetting, perhaps, who was in the room (not just traditional science people, as the involvement of the British Academy might have suggested) he landed on this as an example of a “mickey mouse course” (though he added in parenthesis that this was a “slightly unhelpful phrasing” from the PM) to audible gasps. Ahuja – having first tried somewhat mischievously to draw him on the use of classics to a prime minister – cited Charlie Brooker (of Black Mirror and Screenwipe fame) as a very successful media graduate. Onwurah stressed the importance of a critique of the media in a post-truth world.

Lord Clement-Jones – who in Liberal Democrat style, played the role of an avuncular science-focused Barry Cryer on this particular antidote to panel sessions – gave an answer to the financial precarity that universities faced that emphasised the need for a review and for the “knocking together of heads” of universities unable to drive effectiveness by changing shape and scope. Onwurah repeated the manifesto word-for-word (a promise to “act” but not a desire to be drawn, on stage as to what that action may constitute) and added a codicil on universities needing to get more love after years of uncertainty and attack.

Camrose’s solution put the problem on universities – they needed to get better at doing what they do well and stop doing what they do badly. And that’s where Mickey Mouse came in (although the “mechanics of identifying,” he conceded, needed work).

There were interesting passages in the debate, particularly on the model of change that linked innovation to growth, that I would have loved to hear more on. A fascinating question on ethics and public trust of science was derailed in to a debate on AI regulation, from which we learned Camrose favoured light and early (citing the old saw on regulating airlines in the 1930s), Onwurah wanted a more risk-focused approach, Clement-Jones wanted international convergence.

We did get into the decaying value of the UK’s good name as global soft power (with a particular reference to the in-year cancellation of ODI funding) – the conservative model was integration in carefully chosen key areas (the horizon scheme was “humming” apparently”) whereas the other two parties addressed the need for actions to back up warm words, allowing universities to get the best of existing and new links. Although Onwurah committed to not repeating the in year ODI cuts, she didn’t commit to growing ODI funding.

There is perhaps a lingering sense that the debates and hustings of 2024 have not really moved the needle – that the general sense is a result has been clear since long before the election was called.

Democratically, educationally even, we should be having debates on all kinds of topics – but simply regurgitating a memorised manifesto or an established consensus isn’t enough. This was a good debate (possibly the best in the campaign thus far) precisely because it was able to occasionally move beyond that.

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