Policy Update – December 2023

Ed Bridges, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Academy of Social Sciences 

Prime Minister’s reset

The Prime Minister (PM) attempted to assert a sense of direction to his government with a three-pronged approach of a King’s Speech, a Cabinet reshuffle and a financial autumn statement.

  • The King’s Speech on 7 November outlined 21 proposals for the new Parliamentary term. Of the measures, around a third have been carried over from the previous session or previously published in some form, whilst many others were drafted with an election in mind, to frame ‘wedge issues’ for any campaign, on issues such as energy and housing. The speech was lighter on research and development (R&D), with the Conservative chair of the Science, Innovation & Technology Committee saying it was “disappointing” that the speech did not include a specific bill on AI, arguing that without such laws the UK could be left behind in its bid to be a global leader in the technology.
  • The following week, the PM conducted a major reshuffle, with the headlines being taken by the departure of Suella Braverman at the Home Office and the appointment of former PM David Cameron as Foreign Secretary – but there were important changes lower down the pecking order too. In particular, George Freeman, who had served with wide acclaim, stepped down to be replaced by Andrew Griffith, a former director of the Number 10 Policy Unit. A lawyer by training, before politics he worked in business, including as CFO of Sky.
  • In his autumn statement on 21 November, the Chancellor made a point of stating that the UK has “the best universities” and “the cleverest scientists”, giving the nation “Europe’s most innovative economy”. This enthusiasm was, however, limited in scope, with a new £8m fellowship scheme aimed at mid-career researchers – the Faraday Discovery Fellowships – being limited (£) to STEM researchers only (something the AcSS has criticised). Elsewhere, funding packages were announced for the automotive industry, aerospace, AI, the life sciences and for clean energy manufacturing. Mr Hunt also, importantly, indicated his intention to reform R&D tax credits, by creating a simplified R&D tax relief combining the existing R&D expenditure credit and SME schemes. The UK Government also published its independent review of university spinouts, which called for “innovation-friendly university policies”, and also noted the UK’s strength in social sciences, arts and humanities alongside its science and technology base.

It remains to be seen whether the changes affect the Conservatives’ opinion poll ratings. Our own election series will include a January webinar examining public views on taxation and welfare, and how these map onto the parties’ positions.

Other news in brief

  • The much-heralded ‘AI safety summit’ saw 28 countries agreeing to deepen scientific collaboration on the safety of cutting-edge AI through the so-called Bletchley Declaration, stating: “AI should be designed, developed, deployed, and used, in a manner that is safe, in such a way as to be human-centric, trustworthy and responsible”. Specifically, the United States committed to launching an AI safety institute along the same lines as the UK’s, with research to focus on evaluating known and emerging risks of so-called “frontier” artificial intelligence models. Věra Jourová, a European Commission vice-president, indicated that the EU is expecting to reach an agreement  by the end of the year on legislation to regulate AI.  She said that the EU AI Act, first proposed in April 2021, would be an “innovation-friendly, risk-based and future-proof approach to regulating AI”. This University of Oxford article offers a range of expert views on the relative merits of the Bletchley discussions. The Academy of Social Sciences will also be holding our own webinar in February to highlight social science perspectives on AI.
  • RAND report: A report on REF 2021 Impact Case Studies highlighted the “diversity and significance of UK research impacts both nationally and globally”, as well as “the unique, complex pathways from the underpinning research through to impact”. The report indicated a major regional variation of impact – not just in terms of which of the UK’s nations and regions do best in what academic areas, but also which areas are ‘exporting’ their impact to other parts of the country. Unsurprisingly, the golden triangle is the biggest exporter, distributing 69% of its impact to elsewhere, which (as has been explored elsewhere) has broader implications for ‘levelling up’ agendas. The social sciences performed relatively poorly in terms of exported impact.
  • ‘Shockingly low’ ESRC success rates: Data obtained by Times Higher Education (£) showed that just 64 of 547 applications (11.7%) to the ESRC in 2022-23 for responsive mode grants were approved for funding. In total, £34.5m was awarded to successful bids, which have to focus on “researcher-driven basic, applied and strategic research”. Fewer than half of all applications (46%) were considered by funding panels, with 31 bids rejected by office-based decisions, 45 withdrawn by research organisations and 224 deemed non-fundable by reviewers.