Science, technology and innovation: the impact of Brexit

Scientist working with a large cylinder-shaped piece of lab equipmentBy Steven McGinty

There have been many twists and turns in the Brexit story. The latest, has been Theresa’s May’s failed attempt to increase her parliamentary majority and gain a personal mandate for negotiating her own version of Brexit.

However, since the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) researchers and professionals have consistently voiced their concerns over the potential negative impacts of Brexit, particularly in areas such as funding, collaboration and skills.

Prospect – a union for 50,000 scientists, engineers and technical specialists – has made it clear that they believe:

Science is an international endeavour and continued free movement of people is vitally important both to the public interest and the wider economy.”

Their research highlights that British participation in prestigious Europe-wide research projects could be under threat, such as the mission to find the ‘oldest ice’ in Antarctica and the European Space Agency’s project to develop the most ambitious satellite Earth observation programme.

The Financial Times also highlights that British researchers have been very successful at winning important grants from the European Research Council. As a result, the UK receives 15.5% of all EU science funding – a disproportionate return on the UK’s 12% contribution to the overall EU budget.

Professor Dr Carsten Welsch, an academic from Liverpool University, underlines how essential EU funding is to his work: “in some years as much as 80% of our funding has been sourced from the EU.

Figures from technology consultancy Digital Science suggest that leaving the EU could cost UK scientists £1bn per year.

Universities UK has also investigated the wider economic impacts of EU funding in the UK. In 2016, their research found that EU funding generates more than 19,000 jobs across the UK, adding £1.86 billion to the UK economy. Later research has also shown that international students and their visitors generate £25.8 billion in gross output for the UK economy. In addition, as a single group, they add £690 million to the UK retail industry.

What do the politicians say?

With their ‘Save our Scientists’ campaign, the Liberal Democrats have been outspoken in their support for continued scientific co-operation across Europe. Their 2017 General Election manifesto stated that they would underwrite funding for British partners in EU-funded projects such as Horizon 2020 – the largest ever EU Research and Innovation programme – worth nearly €80 billion in funding. It also promised to protect and raise the science budget by inflation, and stop cuts to medical research.

But the UK government has also made efforts to lessen the concerns of STEM researchers and professionals. Similarly, Chancellor Philip Hammond has guaranteed to underwrite EU funding won by UK organisations through programmes such as Horizon 2020, even if these projects continue after Brexit. On the 17th January, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her 12 objectives for negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU. Within this speech, she stated that:

We will welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives, for example in space exploration, clean energy and medical technologies.”

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, has also tried to provide reassurance by emphasising the important role for science and innovation in the government’s industrial strategy. He has highlighted that the strategy includes £229 million of funding for a ‘world class’ materials research centre at the University of Manchester and a centre for excellence for life sciences. In addition, a new funding body will be created – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – which will bring together several funding councils to create a ‘loud and powerful’ voice for science.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has also published a report arguing that positive steps should be taken to ensure UK science plays a significant role in the global economy. One idea put forward by the report is that:

The UK should offer to host – in partnership with governments and funding bodies from other countries – one or more new, large-scale international research facilities. This would be a bold move to signal the UK’s global standing in science.

International partners – David Johnston Research + Technology Park

At a recent innovation event in Glasgow, Carol Stewart, Business Development Manager of David Johnston Research and Technology Park, set out the thoughts of researchers and companies based at their innovative research park in Waterloo, Canada. Unsurprisingly, their key concern was restrictions on the free movement of labour, and the impact Brexit might have on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

However, Ms Stewart was positive that there would still be plenty of opportunities, noting that the UK and Canada has a relationship as part of the Commonwealth, and that London will still be regarded as a global technology hub.

Overcoming negative sentiment

One important concern is that there is widespread anecdotal evidence that EU nationals are feeling less welcome. Stories of researchers either leaving positions or citing Brexit as a reason for not taking up posts in the UK are becoming the norm. Anxieties caused by a lack of clarity over the long-term status of EU nationals and the complexities in obtaining permanent residency, can only be damaging to the UK’s reputation for international science.  As physicist and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox explains:

We have spent decades – centuries arguably – building a welcoming and open atmosphere in our universities and, crucially, presenting that image to an increasingly competitive world. We’ve been spectacularly successful; many of the world’s finest researchers and teachers have made the UK their home, in good faith. A few careless words have already damaged our carefully cultivated international reputation, however. I know of few, if any, international academics, from within or outside the EU, who are more comfortable in our country now than they were pre-referendum. This is a recipe for disaster.

With the latest election results, the UK is likely to go through a period of political instability. It will be important  that, regardless of political changes, the UK continues to exercise its role as a leader in science, technology and innovation. That not only means providing funding and facilities for research, but also rebuilding the UK’s reputation as a place where the very best scientists and innovators want to live and work.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read some of our other articles:

Making science fun … 12 great STEM apps for primary and secondary pupils

british-science-weekBritish Science Week 2017 is in full swing and the theme this year is change. Whether it’s climate change or the changing seasons, transformative new materials or energy, there are changes happening all around us, all of the time. And British Science Week is also a chance to encourage young people to consider the changes they can enact to have a positive impact on the future. This may include choosing a career in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and maths.

Getting children and young people interested in STEM can be tricky, though. The British Science Week website includes lots of resources, and this year is promoting a citizen science ‘penguin-spotting’ project. Parents can also help, and what better way for kids to learn about STEM than through a fun interactive game on a tablet, phone, or other device?

There are some great examples of apps and computer-based games to help young people explore STEM concepts while experimenting, networking with other students, and sometimes even creating products.

We’ve highlighted some of these below – hopefully teachers, and parents, will have a look, be inspired and think about using them in school or at home.


Note: Many of the apps cover multiple areas of STEM. They are listed in order of recommended age of user from youngest to oldest. The apps are described by age and subject(s): Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths. So (4+) SEM means that the app is suitable for ages four and up, and students will learn about science, engineering, and maths.

  • Simple Machines by Tinybop
    (4+) SEM
    Students discover how simple machines work by conducting their own experiments and investigating invisible forces. Available in 40+ languages.
  • Endless Numbers by Originator Inc.
    (-5) M
    For children up to the age of five – this app is designed to set the stage for early numeracy learning. Although it is technically for kids below primary school age, it can be used to help older pupils who struggle with numeracy.
  • Blokify by Noquo Inc.
    (6+) SEM
    3D modeling software. Children can create toys that they can play with virtually, or physically via 3D printing.
  • Toca Lab by Toca Boca
    (6+) S
    Children explore the ‘colourful and electrifying world of science’ and interact with all 118 elements from the periodic table.
  • DoodleMaths by EZ Education
    (7+) M
    This app is designed to be used for only a few minutes daily. It identifies a child’s maths level and allows them to progress at their own pace. Teachers and parents can quickly and easily monitor a child’s progress. It’s also aligned to KS1 and KS2 National Curriculum for England and Wales.
  • Tynker for Schools by Neuron Fuel
    (9+) TE
    Kids learn to program and can build games, control drones, create apps, and more.
  • Learn Python by SoloLearn
    (9+) T
    A social and fun way for kids (and even adults!) to learn how to write Python code.
  • Tinkercad by Autodesk (Browser-based)
    (12+) SEM
    Pupils create 3D digital designs of toys, prototypes, home décor, jewellery and more.
  • 3D Brain by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratories
    (12+) S
    Pupils discover how the brain works using a 3D brain structure. They can also learn through interactive case studies about how brain damage, mental disorders and mental illness impact the physical structure of the brain.
  • Dragonbox Algebra 12+ by WeWantToKnow AS
    (12+) M
    A maths game that “levels up” based on pupil’s mastery of each concept or skill. Provides a balance between challenging children to advance their knowledge and understanding and allowing them to master concepts at their own pace.
  • Molecules by Theodore Gray by Touchpress Ltd
    (12+) S
    Students explore molecular dynamics. Also includes the full text of the book Molecules by Theodore Gray.
  • Ozobot
    (14+) T
    The app is used in conjunction with corresponding robots. Students learn to program an actual, tangible robot that they can control and then reprogram using the app.

The research for this blog was originally done by April Bowman, who joined us in July 2016 for a voluntary work experience placement, while studying for a Master’s in Public Policy at the University of Stirling, where her policy specialism was education policy and teaching practice.

Read some of our other blogs on education:

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

What state is the Scottish education system in?

by Stacey Dingwall

On Tuesday, the Scottish Government published new statistics on the country’s education system, contained in the evidence report for the National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education. The report outlines progress made against each of the four priorities set by the Scottish Government in January when it first published the Framework:

  • Improvement in attainment, particularly in literacy and numeracy;
  • Closing the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children;
  • Improvement in children and young people’s health and wellbeing;
  • Improvement in employability skills and sustained, positive school leaver destinations for all young people.

The government’s priority

The Scottish Government has previously identified education as its top priority, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stating that her actions in this area are what she wishes to be judged on during her time in office.

Unfortunately, these latest statistics did not bring good news for the First Minister. While Education Secretary John Swinney highlighted that the number of teachers in the country had increased overall, he also conceded that “significant improvements” were needed in some areas. These areas include a worsening of the ratio of pupils to teachers in 12 council areas, and a slight increase in class sizes overall.

2015 Pisa results

The progress report came on the heels of the previous week’s bad news: Scotland’s performance in the 2015 Pisa rankings. The country recorded its worst ever results in the OECD survey, with scores for maths, science and reading declining since 2012. Scotland’s 2015 results in these areas were all classified as ‘average’, in contrast to 2000’s results of ‘above average’.

Although Scotland maintained its position within the OECD statistical average, the results indicate that the country is now performing ‘significantly below’ other countries in some areas, including England (science).

Has the Scottish education system got worse?

Reacting to the Pisa results, opposition parties called them evidence of “a decade of educational failure” under the SNP. Keir Bloomer of Reform Scotland and the Commission on School Reform also said that it was “no longer credible to describe Scotland’s education system as world leading”, and suggested there was now an “urgent” case for reform.

This is not something that the Scottish Government has shied away from admitting. As we reported from this year’s Scottish Learning Festival, John Swinney has made it his intention to “declutter’ the Scottish education system, by reducing teachers’ workloads around assessments. A number of actions have either been implemented, or are in the process of being introduced, in response to the OECD’s 2015 review of education policy, practice and leadership in Scotland, which the government commissioned itself. These include the expansion of the Scottish Attainment Challenge, funding from which enabled 63% of the increase in FTE teachers in Scotland last year.

Pisa overemphasis?

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, said that it was important not to make any “snap judgements” based on the Pisa results, emphasising the need for analysis of the full data released by the OECD rather than headline findings.

We looked at issues raised around the influence of Pisa results in 2014, when academics and research questioned the system’s reliability and its claim that when schools are given more independence over spending, their schools achieve better academic results. An evaluation of the Pisa methodology published in May this year found that it had a series of limitations including “an inconsistent rationale, opaque sampling, unstable evaluative design, measuring instruments of questionable validity, opportunistic use of scores transformed by standardization, reverential confidence in statistical significance, an absence of substantively significant statistics centered on the magnitudes of effects, a problematic presentation of findings and questionable implications drawn from the findings for educational norms and practice”.

The OECD itself has admitted that “large variation in single country ranking positions is likely” because of the methods it uses.

Going forward

Conceding that the results were not where she wanted Scotland’s education system to be, Nicola Sturgeon maintained, however that the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is the “right way forward”. She also highlighted her government’s commitment to acting on the recommendations contained in the OECD’s earlier review of the system, in which the CfE was described in positive terms, with the caveat that the government must be ‘bold and innovative’ in order to achieve its potential. Given the First Minister’s stated determination to improve the education system’s performance, this is advice that would seem logical to follow.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

Introducing 12 great STEM apps for primary and secondary pupils

Guest blog by April Bowman

Originally from Kansas, USA, April taught elementary school children before coming to Scotland to continue her academic study. She is currently in her final semester of study of the Master’s in Public Policy  programme at the University of Stirling, where her policy specialism has been education policy and teaching practice. April joined our Knowledge Exchange team for two weeks in July on a voluntary work experience placement.


What better way for kids to learn about STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) than through a fun interactive game on a tablet, phone, or other device? There are some great examples of apps and computer-based programs to help students explore STEM concepts while experimenting, networking with other students, and sometimes even creating products. I thought it would be useful to to highlight some of these – hopefully teachers, and parents, will have a look and think about using them in school or at home.

Note: Many of the apps cover multiple areas of STEM. They are listed in order of recommended age of user from youngest to oldest. The apps are described by age and subject(s): Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths. So (4+) SEM means that the app is suitable for ages four and up, and students will learn about science, engineering, and maths.

  • Simple Machines by Tinybop
    (4+) SEM
    Students discover how simple machines work by conducting their own experiments and investigating invisible forces. Available in 40+ languages.
  • Endless Numbers by Originator Inc.
    (-5) M
    For children up to the age of five – this app is designed to set the stage for early numeracy learning. Although it is technically for kids below primary school age, it can be used to help older pupils who struggle with numeracy.
  • Blokify by Noquo Inc.
    (6+) SEM
    3D modeling software. Children can create toys that they can play with virtually, or physically via 3D printing.
  • Toca Lab by Toca Boca
    (6+) S
    Children explore the ‘colourful and electrifying world of science’ and interact with all 118 elements from the periodic table.
  • DoodleMaths by EZ Education
    (7+) M
    This app is designed to be used for only a few minutes daily. It identifies a child’s maths level and allows them to progress at their own pace. Teachers and parents can quickly and easily monitor a child’s progress. It’s also aligned to KS1 and KS2 National Curriculum for England and Wales.
  • Tynker for Schools by Neuron Fuel
    (9+) TE
    Kids learn to program and can build games, control drones, create apps, and more.
  • Learn Python by SoloLearn
    (9+) T
    A social and fun way for kids (and even adults!) to learn how to write Python code.
  • Tinkercad by Autodesk (Browser-based)
    (12+) SEM
    Pupils create 3D digital designs of toys, prototypes, home décor, jewellery and more.
  • 3D Brain by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratories
    (12+) S
    Pupils discover how the brain works using a 3D brain structure. They can also learn through interactive case studies about how brain damage, mental disorders and mental illness impact the physical structure of the brain.
  • Dragonbox Algebra 12+ by WeWantToKnow AS
    (12+) M
    A maths game that “levels up” based on pupil’s mastery of each concept or skill. Provides a balance between challenging children to advance their knowledge and understanding and allowing them to master concepts at their own pace.
  • Molecules by Theodore Gray by Touchpress Ltd
    (12+) S
    Students explore molecular dynamics. Also includes the full text of the book Molecules by Theodore Gray.
  • Ozobot
    (14+) T
    The app is used in conjunction with corresponding robots. Students learn to program an actual, tangible robot that they can control and then reprogram using the app.

Read some of our other blogs on digital skills:

Members of the Idox Information Service can also read the In Practice research briefing written by April, looking at the teaching of STEM subjects in UK schools for more information on using digital platforms in teaching.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Season’s readings: looking back on a year of blogging, and looking forward to 2016

Time Passing shutterstock_88253254

We’ve almost reached the turn of the year, a good moment to pause and reflect on what the Knowledge Exchange has been blogging about in 2015.

We’ve covered a wide range of subject areas, from education to the arts, health to housing. With over 160 blog posts since January, there’s too much to fully consider in this short review, but some of our featured blog posts are worth revisiting.

 A global view of digital government

Throughout the year, Steven McGinty has been taking readers on a world tour of technology, reporting on the application by and impact of digital technologies on governments at home and abroad.

In January, Steven looked at the potential and pitfalls of data sharing and linking up UK government databases. Later in the year, he highlighted public sector tech trends, including using technology to open up government and improve democracy. And Steven has also reported on digital government developments in Estonia, Norway and Singapore.

 Planning matters

The Knowledge Exchange started life as The Planning Exchange, and we still maintain a strong interest in planning issues.

In May, Morwen Johnson highlighted the increasing interest in contemporary strategic planning as a delivery solution to complex problems. Morwen noted that an RTPI policy paper had advocated a strengthening of strategic planning to secure greater co-operation with respect to development and to facilitate city regions.

In September, Rebecca Jackson reported from the annual Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference in Edinburgh, which covered the theme of “the changing landscape of planning”.

 Eventful posts

Rebecca joined the Knowledge Exchange in August 2015 and immediately hit the ground blogging. She’s been out and about reporting from events and covering topics as diverse as co-production in the criminal system, child neglect, wellbeing and resilience, and citizenship and identity.

 Learning to work, working to learn

Rebecca also reported from the Scottish Learning Festival, and during the year our blog has featured a number of other posts on education, skills, training and employment.

In July, Heather Cameron looked at the continuing challenge of enabling young people from disadvantaged areas to access higher education.

Stacey Dingwall described the issues raised in a report from the UK Commission for Education and Skills, which suggested that young people are facing a ‘postcode lottery’ when searching for work experience. And in September, Stacey highlighted our Knowledge Exchange briefing which focused on the crucial importance of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills in the UK.

Stacey’s post was also a useful reminder that, as well as blogging, we also gather evidence, data and research to produce briefings on key topics, such as change management, green infrastructure and new approaches to housing later in life.

 Save the day

Throughout the year, we’ve tried to observe significant days in the calendar by blogging on related topics.

  • To mark International Women’s Day, Donna Gardiner wrote about the barriers facing female entrepreneurs
  • On the International Day of Older Persons, I blogged about the economic opportunities of ageing
  • On World Food Day, I highlighted the problem of food waste, and what’s being done to tackle it

Special themes

We also blogged on three selected themes in 2015: cities; elections; and evidence-based policies:

  • In March Rebecca Riley considered the role of cities in the knowledge economy, while in April Morwen reported from a conference looking at smart cities in a critical light.
  • Rebecca also highlighted the importance of research and evidence for policy makers in a Knowledge Exchange White Paper, published in March.
  • In May, Stacey described her experience as part of the Idox Elections team in helping to deliver the company’s postal vote management system for the UK general election.

The year to come

Much of 2016 is still a calendar of unforeseen events. But some dates have been pencilled into the diary, and may well feature in the Knowledge Exchange blog next year.

Elections will take place on 5 May for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Greater London Assembly and for 128 local authorities in England. On the same day, there will be mayoral elections in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Salford and elections for Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales.

In the summer, the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will no doubt generate discussion on the legacy of London 2012.

Among the selected themes we’ll be focusing on in 2016 are cities and digital transformation. Meanwhile, ongoing issues are likely to continue making the news: the struggle facing local authorities to meet increasing demands with fewer resources; further devolution of powers from central government; climate change; health and social care integration; and the affordable housing shortage.

And it’s looking likely that by this time next year the people of the UK will have made their decision on whether to remain in or leave the European Union.

We’ll be scrutinising these and other developments, trying to make sense of them and keeping our readers posted on new research and evidence.

From all of us in the Knowledge Exchange, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.

Understanding science and innovation: key ingredients

Female scientist in a lab.

Image from Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License.

By Steven McGinty

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower” Steve Jobs

From penicillin to Dolly the sheep, the UK has always been at the forefront of scientific innovation. Last month, the Chancellor, George Osborne, gave a boost to the scientific community when he welcomed the idea of a National Institute for Materials Research and Innovation in the North of England. The Chancellor said that this would create new jobs and attract further investment, emphasising that the government are committed to the creation of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

This is just one example of how scientific innovation can be used to support economic development. Below I’ve identified some of the key ingredients to developing innovation, as well as providing several examples of good practice across the UK and Ireland.

Innovation infrastructure

The North West Business Leadership Team (NWBLT) report highlights the importance of having the infrastructure in place to support innovation. Crucially, it suggests that the ability to create partnerships between organisations and across business, government agencies, and academia, helps firms to gain a competitive advantage. For example, the Virtual Engineering Centre, a partnership between the Hartree Centre and the University of Liverpool, supports companies such as Jaguar Land Rover to improve their business performance through the adoption of the latest techniques and tools.

Business clusters, particularly digital clusters, have also proven to be important for driving innovation and increasing productivity. These clusters involve bringing together the right innovative people and providing them with access to the right resources in a small geographical area.

Some notable examples include Tech City in East London, which is a cluster of technology and creative firms, and Dublin’s Digital Hub, a project based in the Republic of Ireland, which contains a range of firms, focused around digital media and entrepreneurship. The clusters blend technology companies with organisations from other sectors, including retail, leisure and advertising.

They also play a key role in helping start-ups to develop. For instance, it’s been shown that the development of the nanotechnology industry has been related to a small number of scientific clusters across the world.

Start-ups and agile SMEs

Start-ups and SMEs are important for bringing new products, technologies and services onto the market.  Universities can play an important role in providing a wide variety of support to SMEs. Several programs already exist in universities across the UK, including the University of Leicester’s “SME Support to Growth” project, which offers advice on exporting internationally, and the University of Birmingham’s Accelerating Business-Knowledge Base Innovation Activity (ABIA) project, which provides varied and tailored support to SMEs working in science and technology in the West Midlands, including access to support from doctoral researchers.

Additionally, the University of Manchester has also been very successful in launching SMEs.  This includes Nanoco, a firm that develops and manufactures quantum dots and semiconductor nanoparticles that are used in a number of areas, such as bio-imaging and solar energy.

The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) also highlights that SMEs can find it difficult to access early stage financing, particularly since the economic downturn. Therefore, it’s important that the government introduces and supports policies that provide access to finance. Two examples that already exist include the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) and the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS), which provide tax relief to investors who buy shares in high risk SMEs.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) has also raised the issue of investment in SMEs. They have voiced their concern over the UK government’s cuts to research spending, highlighting that the UK is below the EU average on research spending and is 21st in the league tables of research spending, behind countries such as Belgium and the Czech Republic. The report suggests that increased funding should be given to Innovate UK, a body that supports innovation in business.

Highly skilled workforce

The Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills emphasises the importance of having people with the necessary science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills to generate new knowledge. In addition to technical skills, the report makes it clear that the UK must produce people who have an understanding of business management and the entrepreneurial skills to develop their innovation commercially.


Further Reading:

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on a range of economic development issues. Abstracts and access to journal articles are only available to members.

Building STEM skills in the UK

Halten

The latest briefing from the Knowledge Exchange focuses on the provision of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills in the UK. You can download the briefing for free from the Knowledge Exchange home page.

Despite indications that increased levels of skills acquisition in STEM fields is critical to the future of the UK economy, surveys of employers frequently reveal issues with the recruitment of employees with appropriate skills. Continue reading

Girls need STEM role models

female scientist

by Stacey Dingwall

The fact that women are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers in the UK is not news – figures released by the government in August 2013 revealed that despite making up 46% of the UK workforce, just 15.5% of the STEM workforce are women. A new report published by ScienceGrrl, a not-for-profit grassroots organisation which aims to celebrate women in science, has highlighted perhaps one of the biggest reasons why there are so few women working in, and girls aspiring to work in, STEM related fields – a lack of role models.

Continue reading