Conservative party leader Theresa May, seen visiting an industrial facility, has promised more money for research. Credit: Anthony Devlin/Reuters

Ahead of a UK election that will decide who leads the country’s exit negotiations with the European Union, a remarkable consensus has emerged among the main national parties. All three have pledged in their manifestos to spend more money on science. Each is “putting science at the heart of their programme for the future of Britain”, says Sarah Main, director of the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering.

Yet as the uncertainty of Brexit hangs over the future of British science, for many researchers the promises may seem more like consolation prizes. Almost a year after the country voted to leave the EU, scientists still don’t know what the split will mean for funding and collaborations with EU colleagues — while non-British EU scientists remain unclear about their future residency status.

Compared to many other major science nations, Britain spends relatively little on research and development (R&D): just 1.7% of its gross domestic product (GDP). By contrast, Germany spends 2.9%, and the United States 2.8%. But the governing Conservative Party — which polls suggest will win the 8 June election — has said it wants to raise UK spending to 2.4% within 10 years, with a longer-term goal of 3%. Labour, the main rival party, has promised 3% by 2030 and the Liberal Democrats, third in national polls, have set a “long-term goal” to double science spending.

In theory, these targets would mean billions more for research. But the proportion of GDP spent isn’t necessarily an indicator of a nation’s research health, says Kieron Flanagan, a science-policy researcher at the Alliance Manchester Business School. “Some wags have pointed out that the easiest way to achieve the 3% is by crashing the economy,” he says. “Which is true, and it actually points to the meaninglessness of that kind of ratio.” Much R&D spending comes through the private sector, over which the government has no direct control, he adds.

Research rhetoric

In recent decades, Labour has been a champion of research and innovation, and academia has been seen as a bastion of its support. The party set the country’s most recent long-term research target: while in government in 2004, it promised to push R&D spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2014, although it failed to do so.

But the Conservatives have gradually increased their focus on science. The words ‘science’ and ‘research’ — or variations of these — didn’t appear in their manifesto in 2005, but garnered 28 mentions this year (see ‘Political patter’). And in the past year, the party — led by Prime Minister Theresa May, who took over after the Brexit vote — has announced an extra £2 billion (US$2.6 billion) per year in government spending on research by 2020. “The Conservative Party put its money where its mouth is. There is clearly an upwards trajectory of support for science and research,” says David Willetts, who was UK science minister from 2010 to 2014.

Yet at the same time, May is pledging to slash immigration, raising concerns about the country’s attractiveness to overseas researchers and students. And the Conservatives are taking a hard line on Brexit negotiations. Whereas Labour has promised to immediately guarantee residency and other rights for EU citizens in the United Kingdom, and has said that it will seek to stay part of EU research programmes and the popular Erasmus student-exchange scheme, the Conservatives have made no such promises. They have, however, said that they want to maintain collaborations with European partners. John Unsworth, an energy research consultant who chairs the network Scientists for Labour, thinks the Conservative commitment to science is “up and down”, and more focused on its commercial aspects than on basic science.

Of the three parties, only the Liberal Democrats explicitly oppose leaving the EU — a stance that is bringing them scientists’ support, says Julian Huppert, a former biochemist who was Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Cambridge until he lost his seat in 2015. Huppert, who now works on science and technology policy at the University of Cambridge, is campaigning for re-election in that city. Many scientists are volunteering for his campaign, he says.

With the Conservatives seemingly on course for victory, some scientists say that concerns over Brexit trump any other promises. “I would not consider voting for any party hell-bent on pursuing Brexit whatever the cost, and without providing any analysis on the possible scenarios that we have for a Brexit future,” says Anne Glover, a prominent biologist who was formerly the European Commission’s chief science adviser, and is now dean for Europe at the University of Aberdeen. “It seems to me we had an evidence-free EU referendum and we are heading towards an evidence-free Brexit,” she says.