Corbyn’s Labour: Science and Environment

Jeremy Corbyn’s scientific ideas were presented to Scientists for Labour, and can be read here.

I had high hopes going into it, Corbyn was part of the Science is Vital campaign to reverse cuts to the science budget.

However, the policy response is a bit of a mixed bag. It covers a lot of topics which don’t necessarily belong in a science plan in my opinion (such as a housing shortage), and that markets were too focused on short termism and derivative fiddling than in investments in science and industry.

Ignoring the fact that finance has always dominated over industry in this nation, especially since the 1950s, and that deindustrialisation has a multitude of causes, Jeremy Corbyn is right to point out that what killed a lot of industry was a shift away from investment in industry to favour banking and the City. 

So how does Jeremy propose to fix this? State investment, using a National Investment Bank.

Government investment in science is something that the UK has always lagged behind in. Germany by contrast, which has a strong government investment programme for sciences, spends around 3% of it’s GDP on science – in line with an EU target to do so. This strong investment in science since 2006 has paid off, with Germany rising to 4th most competitive economy in the world, thanks in part to the science funding.

Publicly funded science, as an independently funded UK Innovation Research Centre paper found, doesn’t crowd out private sector funding for research. It instead boosts private sector investment. The interactions of public and privately funded services also raised industrial productivity.

A critical review of public funding on research found that more funding raises industrial productivity, and creating an environment for further innovation and technology. It also stresses the need to link graduate training with this increased research base.

A UCL report into taxpayer funded science points out that the UK focuses significantly more on applied science funding than pure research. It also points out that most funding is allocated by research and higher education councils, and that the UK has a well rounded research base, with physical and life sciences seeing greater funding in 2012 than 2002 levels. Business is also attracted to well funded academic institutions, and academic-business collaboration helps to make the UK economy more competitive.

Arguments that the UK fails to exploit its research base doesn’t match a lot of data in the report, either. Again, it comes down to the crowding in that a strong academic base has.

Policy recommendations from the research in the critical review suggest that:

  1. Science and research can only thrive if there is government funding backing it.
  2. Funding increases need to also focus on pure research as well as applied. Science funding cannot be viewed as Science —> Business, or that the only science that is worthwhile is the applied kind.
  3. Funding increases also need to be connected to graduate training by boosting university funding and government research institutes, get them using new technologies, and have a drive for industry to recruit new scientists and engineers. Smaller businesses also need to be connected to the benefits of scientific research.
  4. Industry also needs access to the research done and the outputs it brings, so funding should also try to make journals open source.
  5. Innovation in civil service departments should be encouraged
  6. The University-Business relationships which make UK science a magnet for private sector investment need to be maintained and encouraged.
  7. Private sector roles should include changes to the patent system, and a tax credit scheme where Private Sector R&D can be subsidised to encourage investment.

So how does Jeremy fare on the science front?

Jeremy seems to understand point 1 – that scientific research can only thrive with strong government backing. However, his plans for a strategic investment from a national investment bank are more focused on industry outcomes than on scientific investment in pure research, which also has a major role to play in the economic benefits science can bring an economy.

While he understands the need to upgrade infrastructure to encourage investment, his opening paragraphs say very little on how the national investment bank would fund UK science.

Very little of his efforts seem to mention the role of universities and what raising their funding could do. While research says that supportive infrastructure needs to be one of raising university funds, providing support for pure research, getting graduates trained and equipped to be employed by industry, and getting industry to continue to set up bases around universities which are research powerhouses –  which is where economic benefits are yielded – Jeremy’s plan emphasises more on actual infrastructure developments.

He doesn’t outright state if science funding would rise under his government and if he’d encourage funding into Universities and other academic councils, and the lack of emphasis on saying that pure research also needs to see funding rises makes me question if his welcome talk of an ecology of support structures is more than just lip service.

This part is more speculation, but his plans seem less ambitious than the 3% of GDP commitment Yvette Cooper was committed to, although without figures from the Corbyn team, that is always going to be speculation.

In any case, any increase in science funding from a smart state is welcome, provided the funding is also kept secure and is invested in the right way, and I remain cautiously optimistic of a Jeremy Corbyn funding plan.

Jeremy Corbyn smartly points out the need for graduate training, and training opportunities for others to create a strong and skilled workforce that business can draw from. If a National Education Service was able to reproduce step 3 in the policy recommendations of the review papers, then it would go a long way to seeing the benefits of scientific investments realised in the wider economy. Again, I remain cautiously optimistic about a Jeremy Corbyn Education Service to invest in citizens, and having a skilled and educated labour force can only be a good thing in my opinion.

He also recognises the need for civil services to be able to innovate and invest in their own R&D programs, which in part falls into his anti austerity narrative and opposition to departmental cuts.

While he doesn’t make it a more central theme like Liz Kendall did, Jeremy rightly highlights the issue of a gender gap in STEM subjects and jobs, and wants to challenge gender stereotypes which hold women back into entering STEM.

The Economist, pH7 Science (another blog I write for, where the issue of the STEM gender gap was discussed by the wonderful Sintija Jurkevica) LSE, and US Economics Statistics Administration all have brilliant article s discussing why Jeremy is totally right to declare war on gender stereotyping and why we need to challenge it and get more women into STEM.

Like I said, on the whole I remain cautiously optimistic about science policy under a Corbyn lead Labour. But only time will tell if that optimism is ill founded.

Environment:
Again, Jeremy had some pretty bold ideas when he was on the backbenches. Especially getting the government to commit to an 80% reduction on CO2 emissions by 2030, as oppose to just 40%.

Apart from that, though, Jeremy’s Environmental Paper is nothing bold in my opinion, and it doesn’t say much. What it is is a competent policy outline that’s in step enough with the IPCC that I can’t complain too much about it.

It starts with a critique of the Tories green policies. Corbyn acknowledges the need for Green Space access in fitness and overall public health, although he doesn’t offer ways to increase green space in cities, and he doesn’t discuss changes to zoning laws which would mean we use energy more efficiently.

His climate change position that emissions need to peak in 2020, and fall to zero by 2050, are in line with the IPCC.

Banning fracking is also a sensible policy. In 2013, with the implementation of the Infrastructure Act and amendments which would restrict fracking in National Parks and areas of Special Scientific Interest, which have been scrapped. Corbyn says this will endanger our drinking water, but UK fracking would still have to comply with EU regulations in regards to safety.

The other concern – climate change – is the better ground to not pursue fracking. The Committee on Climate Change (the CCC) have argued in the past that fracking is usable if the regulation is strict, and CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) technology is implemented alongside it.

But the fracking window is closing. Only 3% of UK Bowland shale can be burnt under current carbon budgets, and this rises to just 6% with CCS.

He criticises the Tories for their position on fossil fuel subsidies, fracking, and cutting subsidies for renewables. The IMF points out that we spend 7 times more on fossil fuel subsidies than on renewables.

Cutting renewable subsidies isn’t necessarily bad, if the market is competitive. The Conservative Environmental Network have called to move away from government intervention and towards a free market fix to climate change, which has meant subsidy cuts in practice.

While this reduced uptake, cuts in subsidies have been driven by falling prices (solar panel costs fell by 50% between 2011 and 2013), and in areas like offshore wind, subsidies increased (so much for the free market).

Subsidy cuts haven’t stopped the renewables industry growing in line with government targets either, although the National Grid doubts solar capacity will rise to 20GW by 2020.

Corbyn is also right to criticise cuttings of green energy levies (which reduced government and company obligations to cut emissions and cut the number of homes insulated), as well as cutting of zero carbon home exemptions – which New Labour brought in.

He was also critical of the scrapping of the Green Deal (although the Green Deal wasn’t that great anyway).

The big concern of it was renationalising energy companies, but I fail to see how that would fix environmental issues. And is a debate for another time. 

But other ideas, such as decarbonsing energy by 2030 and scrapping fossil fuel subsidies, are good.

Bringing the Green Bank and National Investment Bank back to public control will help to develop green jobs; although to achieve one million green jobs the majority of investment will have to come from overseas and emerging private sector companies.

Fighting to maintain zero carbon homes and retrofitting buildings, which was enacted over the last decade is fine. Extending micro generation schemes are also fine, but are less radical than the World Energy Outlook report advocates. There aren’t many new solutions in the paper, just critiques of  Tory policy.

Legal fishing limits are also fine to stop total exhaustion of fishing stocks. But doesn’t explain if he’d change the broken quota system, or moves to adopt the much better balanced harvesting method of fishing. Protection quotas for air, water and biodiversity also already exist in the form of EU regulation.

He also opposes nuclear, which the World Energy Outlook report argues is needed to reach zero emissions by 2050. Many argue nuclear power must play a key part in any future energy mix to fight climate change, even if long construction times and high costs mean nuclear doesn’t make up short term plans for zero carbon energy.

The paper makes no mention of his position on GM crops, which would be interesting to see. It does make mentions of the TTIP deal and his opposition to it for environmental reasons, which an Environmental Audit Committee has expressed concerns about.

However, equally, a lot of EU environmental regulations (especially in regards to things like GMOs) are based on protectionism, not science.

So on the whole, environmental policy is competent, but not radical. It would do the job and there are worse environmental policies out there.

Bees?:
His position on bees and neonicotinoids is one of banning their use. Is he right to do this?

A report to the Proceedings of the Royal Society says the evidence is mixed. In laboratory settings, bees suffered with the use of neonicotinoids . In the field however, the evidence was a little more mixed and that further studies are needed. The report is available to read the conclusions of, and I don’t have much issue with Corbyn enacting the precautionary principle on this until more evidence into the harms (or lack thereof) are found.

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