Being a Scientific Powerhouse Will Take More Than Money

Being a Scientific Powerhouse Will Take More Than Money

In an attempt to reshape the economy in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic and leaving the EU, the UK government has laid out a series of plans to boost the digital economy with a new £375m scheme that will drive investment in the UK’s innovative and R&D intensive firms. This should be great news for the technology industry in the UK, at least for existing companies looking to scale up operations as the scheme is dependant on the company being able to find 70% of the investment, up to £30m, from established investors in the first place.

The UK is currently undergoing a skills shortage in many different areas, from fruit picking and truck driving to the high tech industry. Funding for innovative industries is brilliant, but Brexit has meant that finding qualified workers is much harder, both financially and through additional red tape. Along with the funding, I would have liked to have seen the government introduce a further initiative to train and retrain existing workers. A lot of technical skills have been lost to the UK over the last half century due to the outsourcing of much of our manufacturing base to the far east. To successfully push for high tech jobs would mean relearning them.

To make the UK the scientific powerhouse that the government claims is its target will take more than money alone. The fact that the UK was an English speaking country in the EU was a great incentive to inward investment. It also made recruitment of qualified and experienced staff easy in the past. Engineers from France, or scientists from Romania could get a job and start work with minimal paperwork. To multinational companies, this meant that even if there weren’t enough skilled staff in the local area, basing here was still worthwhile as they could recruit easily from the 600 million EU citizens in the other 27 EU countries. They still can recruit, but it is much more onerous on the company, and one some occasions the recruitment process can take a lot longer if the paperwork is incorrect. I actually once had a colleague who was deported from the UK after living and working here in a skilled technical position for many years as the company had made a mistake on his visa paperwork. The ability to recruit skilled staff is the number one reason that companies have for choosing locations, and Brexit has made the UK just a bit more undesirable from that perspective.

Perhaps, with this incentive the government has decided that it would rather focus on home grown industries than search for inward investment? The same scenario would apply for workers. In fact, the funding could actually encourage UK companies to invest in the EU for future growth to easily access the high tech workforce there.

However, there are some encouraging signs that the government is aware of the problem. It has previously introduced a new visa that will allow international students to stay in the country for two years after graduation to find work. Although foreign student registrations have dropped, it is difficult to tell how much is due to Coronavirus and how much to Brexit. It would be great if the government could find ways to promote STEM subjects to UK students, perhaps by dropping tuition fees for approved courses. Now we are out of the EU, this would be possible without funding EU students equally. The Scottish government has already dropped tuition fees for all Scottish students, and the UK government doing the same for STEM students in the rest of the country would encourage the take up of STEM careers.

As I’ve reread this article to make corrections, I realised it sounds a bit negative. I haven’t meant it that way at all. I’m really happy about the government’s vision to build a “scientific powerhouse” in the UK, and for the skilled jobs that it will bring here. I just think that there could be a bit more done to make those changes more sustainable in the longer term and provide the best chance of success in the short term.