A composite image of the two remaining Conservative Leader candidates Rishi Sunak (L) and Liz Truss.

Rishi Sunak (left) and Liz Truss have different economic policies that could have knock-on effects for UK research.Credit: Jack Hill/AFP via Getty, Christopher Furlong/Getty

The race to decide who will become the new leader of the UK Conservative Party, and the country’s next Prime Minister, has less than a month left to run.

The two candidates are the former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss. Both are vying for votes from the 160,000-strong membership of the Conservative Party. Polling suggests that Truss is the favourite to win.

Although neither has said much publicly about what they plan to do for science, they have outlined different approaches to running the country and rescuing its economy from a looming crisis, which could have implications for the research system.

The political turmoil comes at an important time for UK science policy, which is facing criticism from external bodies scrutinizing its existing structures and policies, and an uncertain future relationship with Europe.

‘Safest option’

“There is no doubt that Rishi Sunak is the safest option for the science community,” says James Wilsdon, a science-policy scholar at the University of Sheffield, UK. “In terms of ideology, Sunak is someone who is enthusiastic about science, innovation and technology, and there is evidence of that through his decisions as chancellor.”

Last year, Sunak ushered through plans to boost science spending by 35% by 2026 and set aside £6.9 billion (US$8.4 billion) to pay for potentially taking part in the European Commission’s flagship research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe, or a home-grown alternative.

However, not everyone is convinced. “The big increases in science spending that he signed off when chancellor were already planned under previous prime minister Theresa May,” points out Kieron Flanagan, who studies science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, UK. “In fact, he scaled them back and delayed them because of the pandemic.”

Flanagan also worries that Sunak’s stance on China could harm international collaborations. In a series of tweets on 25 July, Sunak said that if he were to be successful in his leadership bid, he would introduce measures to “face down China”. Those would include reviewing all UK–Chinese research partnerships that have military applications or the potential to help China technologically, and providing more support to universities to counter alleged industrial espionage. He would also close all 30 of China’s Confucius Institutes — culture and language centres attached to UK universities that are funded by the Chinese government.

Flanagan says there is a slim chance that such rhetoric, which some perceive as anti-China, could escalate to a point that it affects universities. China sends huge numbers of students to UK universities, where they pay a premium for education and training. As UK government funding generally does not cover the full costs of doing research, many institutions rely on this income from students to stay afloat, he says. Any change in PhD student numbers could also affect the scientific workforce.

Tax cuts

So far, Liz Truss’s campaign has focused on promises of tax cuts worth more than £30 billion per year, raising concerns about how this would affect the budgets of government departments, including those that oversee research and innovation. Truss has also promised a review of government spending, which could threaten the science budget, says Wilsdon.

Earlier this year, in her role as minister for women and equalities, Truss formed a task force to find ways to encourage more women into science, technology and mathematics careers. From 2014–16, she held the post of environment secretary, during which she cut subsidies for solar-power producers.

Truss and Sunak favour different approaches for dealing with rising inflation and spiralling energy costs that are fuelling a cost-of-living crisis. These issues will affect science and scientists, says Flanagan. “Most science is done in the most expensive places to live in the United Kingdom like London, Cambridge and Oxford. If a junior scientist’s salary does not enable them to live in these places, there will be problems,” he adds.

Chris Millward, who studies education policy at the University of Birmingham, UK, cautions against reading too much into pledges made during the leadership contest, which are designed to appeal to Conservative Party members, the majority of whom are white men over the age of 50 living in the south of England. “Whoever is elected may be looking at moving back from positions that they are taking now to provide a pitch that is more broadly palatable by the general public,” he says.

No science minister

The vote comes at an uncertain time for UK science. Negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Commission over access to Horizon Europe have become increasingly fraught and hopes of UK participation are now vanishingly slim. Science minister George Freeman was among those who quit their posts, ultimately resulting in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation. So far, no one has been reappointed to the science role. And earlier this month, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, who helped steer the country through the COVID-19 pandemic, announced he would step down in April next year.

Members of the House of Lords who sit on a science and technology committee that scrutinizes government decision-making said in a report earlier this month that they were concerned by the fact no one held the science minister post. The committee suggested that the next prime minister should make the new science minister a member of Cabinet, the government’s top team of 20 or so decision makers. Currently, the post is a junior ministerial role.

The government department responsible for science — the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy — says that business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has taken temporary responsibility for science, research and innovation. “The work of the department continues at pace,” a spokesperson told Nature.

The House of Lords report also warns that the United Kingdom’s ambitions to become a “science and technology superpower” by 2030 is at risk because of poor communication between government bodies and a lack of accountability and clear strategy.

Another government-commissioned report revealed wasteful flaws in how grant applications are evaluated, and an independent review concluded that mega-funder UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is not as efficient as it could be.

Ottoline Leyser, who heads UKRI, says the organization welcomed the reports. Their recommendations will help to strengthen UKRI, she adds.