Professor Andy Westwood is Vice Dean for Social Responsibility in the Faculty of Humanities and Professor of Government Practice at The University of Manchester. Here he blogs on this morning’s announcement from Government of additional R&D funding in 2021/22, science policy and the important role the Government’s new Chief Scientific Adviser has to play.

Dr Patrick Vallance – currently President of R&D at GlaxoSmithKline has been confirmed as the UK Government’s next Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Government’s Office for Science. He will provide scientific advice to the Prime Minister and advise the Government on all aspects of policy on science and technology, including the facilitation of scientific advice in policymaking.

First the good news

It looks like Government will be spending plenty of money on science and research in the next few years. In the 2016 Autumn Statement Philip Hammond made a down-payment of an additional £4.7billion on R&D and today this figure has grown to a total of £7billion over the 2017/18 – 2021/22 period with an extra £2.3billion announced for the additional year 2021/22.

Next week’s Industrial Strategy (due on Monday) is already beginning to spend it. In a moment of rare political consensus, Labour and the Conservatives are looking to spend even more, with both pledging to meet 3% of GDP target in the General Election. Even though it’s Vallance’s predecessor as Chief Scientist, Sir Mark Walport who will actually spend most of the money in his new role as head of UKRI, it’s not bad a context from which to offer scientific advice is it?

Up to a point….

For all of the agreement on science and research as a driver of economic success, this isn’t quite matched by Government’s interest in evidence as a key component of public policy. Some departments still don’t have scientific advisors and even those that do are more likely to see them as at the margins of policymaking. Research and evidence isn’t what it used to be. This is a challenging time for scientists and researchers involved in frontline politics. The rise of populism, fake news, the widely reported ‘death of the expert’ and our increasingly selective ‘post-truth’ politics sees the influence of science, evidence and advice somewhat reduced when policy is being made.

Worst of all perhaps is the low priority afforded to science in Brexit negotiations. While there are now position papers on research and higher education and the Government would like to retain access to all EU research funding, but it doesn’t seem especially likely. Even at best it comes a long way behind the politics.

In the coming weeks with the publication of the first Autumn Budget and the Industrial Strategy white paper, scientific ‘know how’ will be more welcome in the formulation of sector deals, the prioritisation of new technologies and the commercialisation and transfer of knowledge into increased growth and productivity. Especially relevant to Vallance’s appointment and his commercial background in life sciences (already one of the sectors likely to benefit).

A focus on ‘place’

But as both the Industrial Strategy Commission and the White Paper have pointed out, regional inequality remains at least as big an economic challenge.  But for Patrick Vallance and the UK’s research community, it may also provide a major, if perhaps unexpected, political opportunity too. Addressing the UK’s long-term productivity weaknesses has to involve a much greater regard for ‘place’.

What has science investment ever done for Grimsby? Or Barnsley? Or Dudley, Great Yarmouth and Oldham? These are all places that have done particularly badly in the last few decades of economic change, losing major employers and industries and increasingly adrift from prosperity elsewhere. Look at Sarah O’Connor’s excellent and very detailed account of Blackpool’s recent fortunes in this weekend’s Financial Times.

Universal Basic Infrastructure

So what can ‘science’ or the chief scientist do for such ‘left behind’ places? It would make little sense to encourage the moving of scientific facilities or even the offices of the Research Councils to either Blackpool or Grimsby. Neither would it solve deep-seated economic and social problems, if parts of the science budget were to be spent there.

But offering the best scientific thinking to tackle these problems should surely be possible? After all, it is this economic and social disconnection that is currently driving so much of our domestic politics. There are some ideas around. We made a recommendation for a ‘Universal Basic Infrastructure’ in the Industrial Strategy Commission’s final report. In the face of further technological change, the RSA and others prefer a Universal Basic Income. ‘What Works Centres’ offer considerable expertise. Organisations like the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) are advocating a greater focus on procurement, anchor institutions and local economic multipliers.

Gavin Kelly of the Resolution Foundation has said that ‘compensating the losers’ from globalisation and technological change is a political imperative: ‘Imaginative work on the future policy landscape is sorely needed which combine sustaining demand in struggling economies with new thinking about the types of combined interventions needed to provide them with at least a chance of longer-term renewal.’ Or as the US economist Jared Bernstein also put it: The ‘Rust Belt demands an answer — but does anyone know what it is?’

We must try and answer this question. The new Chief Scientist might even see it as one of his immediate priorities. If we can organise a Faraday Challenge to discover new battery technologies as part of the Industrial Strategy, then we can organise a similar competition for our best social scientists to come up with the most effective options to reconnect ‘left behind’ places to the mainstream economy.

Patrick Vallance would be doing Theresa May (who he advises) a big favour. After the EU Referendum, she wants ‘an economy that works for everyone’. He’d also be doing a favour for the social sciences by offering an opportunity to engage in this major policy challenge. It might even offer the whole scientific and expert community some sort of redemption too. Ideas for the rebirth of Blackpool might mean some kind of rebirth for experts as well.

Andy Westwood is a Commissioner on the Industrial Strategy Commission. The Commission is an independent, authoritative inquiry into the development of a new, long-term industrial strategy for the UK. The Commission’s Final report calls for a complete overhaul of how the government views industrial strategy and argues that it must be rethought as a broad, long-term and non-partisan commitment to strategic management of the economy. You can read the full Final Report here.