Jo Johnson fields questions on funding and an EU Brexit at the Royal Institution

29 January 2016

The UK’s future security as a knowledge economy hinges on the decision of whether or not to leave the EU, universities and science minister Jo Johnson told an audience at the Royal Institution on 27 January.

Jo Johnson

Johnson, who became universities and science minister in May, said: “No one doubts that Britain could stay a science player outside of the EU, but the risks to valuable institutional partnerships, to flows of bright students and to a rich source of science funding mean the Leave Campaign has serious questions to answer.”

Challenged during a question and answer session on whether the government had a contingency plan for British science should the UK vote to leave the EU, Johnson said: “I am not going to talk about hypothetical situations that might arise.” But he did say that the prime minister was working hard to resolve issues that many saw as negative aspects of the UK’s EU membership.

In his speech, which was given as the annual lecture of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) in the 30th year since its foundation, he told CaSE and audience members representing the science community: “You, like others, told us that science was vital, and we didn’t disagree on that point. The spending review was the clearest signal yet that science and innovation sit at the very heart of this government’s economic plan.”

Reiterating the investment that the government was making in science and innovation, he said it was protecting science funding in real terms at its current level of £4.7bn for the rest of this parliament and committing £6.9bn to capital spending, giving a total investment of £30.4bn by 2020. It was also protecting its funding through Innovate UK for the rest of the parliament and it was protecting and expanding the catapult programme, so that catapults would receive more than £1.6bn in public and private investment over their first five years.

Johnson praised the excellence of British science and highlighted the substantial returns on investment in the sector. “With just 3.2% pf the world’s R&D spend, the UK accounts for 16% of the most highly-cited research articles, and we’ve overtaken the US to rank first among comparable research nations for field-weighted citations impact,” he said.

But during questions he was asked whether such excellence could be maintained when government funding for science would shrink as a proportion of GDP as the economy grows. If returns were so impressive, why was the government not investing even more?

The UK’s international reputation in science was a “global calling card”, Johnson answered, but the government’s measures to protect science spending in real terms had been a big political decision in the light of its measures to make £98bn savings elsewhere. “The government has to provide for many public services and we have to balance the books. We have a commitment to achieve a surplus by 2020 and there are very big macroeconomic challenges we are facing as a country,” he said.

Johnson spoke about the government’s efforts to encourage more people to study science and choose STEM careers, and mentioned professors Brian Cox and Jim Al-Khalili, and organisations such as Science Grrl, as examples of those helping to “mainstream” science. He said the government was partnering with the Wellcome Trust to set up a £30m Inspiring Science Capital Fund to support Science and Discovery Centres for the rest of this parliament.

He also underlined the government’s commitment to retaining the dual support system for funding research and to the Haldane principle that “scientists should be in the driving seat when it comes to assessing specific projects”. It was working with the research councils and other partners to agree the detailed allocations of the science budget, he said, and it intended to formally allocate budgets to individual funding bodies by mid-February.

One question to Johnson concerned the difficulties faced by postdocs and those studying for PhDs. A tiny proportion of them went on to become permanent academic staff and they were sometimes used as “nice, cheap PhD students and then they walk the plank at an age when they’re trying to start families”, the questioner contended. Johnson said there were many reasons why people did PhDs and they did not always want to become academics. If there were concrete suggestions for addressing their concerns, he was “all ears”, he said.

Johnson told the audience that learned societies played a vital role in science and they had done a “terrific job” of keeping science at the forefront of the government’s thinking.

The Institute of Physics was a sponsor of the filming of the event, and the video will be available to view soon.