THE new UK Spring Budget, delivered today by chancellor Philip Hammond, includes much support for research, innovation and skills training in science, engineering and technology.
Many of the new measures are designed to improve productivity in the UK, which still lags behind other European countries.
Hammond announced a £300m (US$360m) fund to support the best STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) research talent as part of efforts to “enhance the UK’s position as a world leader in science and innovation”. £90m will fund 1,000 more PhD places, while the remaining £210m will create new research fellowships to attract the best global talent to areas such as biotechnology and space technology.
He also announced a £270m provision to set up the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to support innovation in universities and businesses, for example to develop robotics that work in extreme environments such as offshore and nuclear energy, or improving medicine manufacturing technologies.
There will also be a renewed focus on more technical education routes, including the introduction of new ‘T-levels’. These new qualifications for 16–19 year-olds will have 15 basic frameworks focussed on a specific career path such as construction or digital technology, and will replace more than 13,000 other technical qualifications. Those going on to study higher level technical qualifications at new Institutes of Technology and Technical Colleges, which were announced as part of the government’s Industrial Strategy in January will receive maintenance grants in the same way as university students.
The chancellor had been expected to announce new support measures for oil and gas projects in the North Sea, particularly those coming to the end of their lives. While nothing concrete was announced, the government is to publish a formal discussion paper on the options for support through the tax regimes. It will set up a new advisory panel to scrutinise the options. There will be a report at the Autumn Budget later this year.
IChemE chief executive Jon Prichard said that the announcement of ‘T-levels’ is a “major step forward” that will be welcomed by employers relying on chemical process technologies and engineering technicians. He also praised the investments in research and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.
“This was a budget speech delivered against a backdrop of great uncertainty, brought on by Brexit. The chancellor was right to highlight once again Britain’s relatively poor productivity record compared with our major competitors. Substantial investment in training and infrastructure is needed, and chemical engineers eagerly await the emergence of the government’s £23bn industrial strategy,” he added.
Steve Elliott, chief executive of the Chemical Industries Association (CIA) said that “the right signals are there”, but criticised the fact that the government had not done anything to address the UK’s uncompetitive energy costs, which would allow manufacturers to grow and invest.
“To secure greater and sustained investment we have to tackle the fact that business energy costs in this country are higher than those countries we are competing with for investment (with electricity prices 80% higher than the EU). We are making great progress on energy issues such as decarbonisation, but need a competitive energy tax system. I hope in 2017 that will be sorted. Tackling that will enable us to face Brexit and its uncertain outcomes, to provide a real confidence boost to manufacturing and its related workforce throughout the UK,” he added.
Dame Ann Dowling, president of RAEng, also reacted positively to news of the STEM investments, and the aim to improve productivity.
“I am also pleased to see the government’s emphasis on empowering the UK workforce with appropriate skills for the industries of the future. The new funding and consolidation of further education qualifications and apprenticeships is much needed, as is enhanced provision for PhD places and research posts in technical subjects. Engineering skills are absolutely key to the success of the industrial strategy – and it is well known that the engineering profession is short of the highly qualified people it needs at all levels,” she said, adding: “Engineering currently underpins at least 20% of UK gross value added, and the changes announced today will help us to grow that contribution.”
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