A new guest author shares their thoughts as part of Policy@Manchester’s Budget Hack event:
When I first witnessed the Budget ceremony 10 years ago, having come from Germany just a few months before, I could not believe my eyes. For an ignorant continental European the political theatre was astonishing: a tattered red box, waved to the press in front of number 11, followed by shouting out a list of detailed figures (Gordon Brown was impressive indeed, in full command, enjoying every minute), with no one really knowing through which kind of policy deliberation they came about, all in code for the experts and policy wonks to decipher, accompanied by the reassurance that all is within the fiscal obligations, and met by hilarious and hysterical shouting from the opposition bench. The 10 o’clock BBC News helped me to make sense of it all, and the next day all of the newspapers told me – academic, married, two children – how much I would be worse off in the next fiscal year, and how the quality of public services would change – not for the better.
I have learned, over the years, that this institutionalised theatre is important. Not so much because the British love their traditions – and boy, those are important in their own right – but because the Budget and its theatre give orientation. Government and opposition, societal interest groups and business, all develop expectations on the basis of very concrete announcements and conditioned intentions. The Budget – once announced – can be a focal point for political debate and if this debate is conducted intelligently, we all can get more clarity as to where the government wants the country to go and why this is good or bad.
So what would I expect from this Spring 2017 Budget, in the area I know most of, science and innovation policy? Frankly: the less I see in there, the better. Why is that? Well, a Budget debate has the tendency to enforce a problematic trait in UK policy making – the need for a quick political win rather than long term strategic thinking.
In my experience, the UK government over the years has had a tendency to announce big change, to design interesting approaches in science and innovation policy, and then to fall short in the implementation – with notable exceptions, for sure (Catapult, new Centre for Cybersecurity, Nano-Initiatives…). However, surprisingly, publicity driven short term spending commitments for science and innovation, defined outside open consultation processes, do not do justice to the long term needs in this area; and if they are done, they must be prepared with a long term implementation plan in mind.
There are currently at least three crucial developments that do not need surprising Budget announcements, but proper consultation and long term planning. The setting up of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the announcement of Sir Mark Walport as its leader is a robust shakeup, with all its chances and dangers (see the excellent contribution in Research Professional by my colleague Kieron Flanagan), that needs time to mature and establish long term stability.
Second, the Industry Strategy is under consultation as we speak, and while the initial consultation document is timid, in parts far too limited and a bit naïve, it nevertheless is a statement for a step change as regards the role of the state in the economy that will now evoke intensive debate – so I hope. Such a step change needs careful preparation and openness, not 20 seconds in the Budget speech that closes important debate down prematurely.
Third, the potential fallout from Brexit, the crucial future relationship with the European Research programmes and community is in a delicate state and dependent on so many political variables in the near future that it cannot be meaningfully captured or influenced at this stage by any simplistic budgetary announcement, especially given the firmly stated reluctance of the government to make any commitments regarding contribution to EU programmes or rights for EU citizens (including scientists) before this is settled in the negotiations. While highly desirable, it is thus near impossible that the Chancellor would do the only thing that really would make a difference, i.e give a formal reassurance that the UK would remain part of the research programmes one way or the other.
So when we see the red box later today , let us hope there is not much in there relating to science and innovation policy, beyond some ornate reassurance of the importance of science and innovation and – in very general terms – their appropriate funding, which then shall be based on long term thinking and proper consultation in responsible and open processes – outside the red box theatre.
Jakob is Professor of Innovation Policy and Strategy at the Alliance Manchester Business School (AMBS) and, since 2010, Executive Director at the AMBS Manchester Institute of Innovation Research.