Jeremy Corbyn says UK should seek economic inspiration in Finland

Finnish economic success in the 1990s shows 'how an economy can turn itself round with a science-led industrial strategy', Labour leader says

Ian Johnston
Science Correspondent
@montaukian
Sunday 14 August 2016 09:03
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Finland's capital Helsinki experienced a relative boom time during the 1990s
Finland's capital Helsinki experienced a relative boom time during the 1990s

Jeremy Corbyn has said the UK should follow Finland's example in developing a "science-led" industrial strategy.

The Labour leader and his rival for the job, Owen Smith, were asked a series of questions by the Scientists for Labour campaign group.

Mr Corbyn claimed many decisions taken by the current Government "appeared to fly in the face of that evidence, not least on the issue of climate change".

And he argued the UK should learn from Finnish policies in the 1990s that showed "how an economy can turn itself round with a science-led industrial strategy".

"Finland's example of the Science and Technology Policy Committee, drawing in scientists, businesses, unions and others in civil society in the development of a high-technology industrial strategy has been exemplary in this respect," he said.

Finland's GDP growth rate was falling in the early 1990s, but rose sharply during the decade.

The full questions and answers are below:

Scientists for Labour: What do you see as the main challenges facing UK science and technology as a result of Brexit? What will you do to support this sector across the entire country, rather than just in London and the South East?

Mr Corbyn: There are a series of major challenges facing UK science and technology (S&T) as a result of Brexit. There are, most immediately, the threatened loss of S&T funding from a range of EU sources, including capital and infrastructure funding; there are the collaborations between scientists and researchers that the EU has fostered for decades; and there is the potential threat to freedom of movement that could seriously damage the ability of scientists themselves to develop the international collaborations that are essential to the conduct of research in the modern world.

To answer this, I think government needs to do two things. First, any threatened loss of funding needs to be guaranteed in the interim period, particularly whilst negotiations are underway. This is the only way to ensure that existing programmes are funded and the uncertainties reduced. Second, we should work with science trade unions and other stakeholders to ensure the security and growth of the sector in the face of difficult challenges ahead, including involvement in negotiations where needed.

Supporting science and scientific research across the whole country is a central part of my policy pledges to rebuild and transform Britain. Particularly in the light of the Brexit vote, it is clear that too many of our communities have been left behind. Yet there is huge potential out there in Britain's heritage of scientific research and in its ongoing world-class research. That exists across the country, like in the north-east's life science specialism. We should be building on that heritage, rather than putting it at risk as the Tories' £1bn real-terms funding cuts have done.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has already spoken of the need to drive UK science funding up to three per cent of GDP, increasing government funding for research as part of that with a commitment to longer-term real funding increases, just as the US, China and Germany are doing. Labour's previous 10-year framework for science funding provided a good framework for secure and stable funding; but alongside this, I've highlighted the creation of new institutions, like the US's ARPA-E energy research institute that provide space for blue skies research.

I want to see the UK implementing an active industrial strategy, focusing on new, science-led sectors like renewable energy and healthcare, that can provide the high-paid, high-skilled jobs of the future. Finland in the 1990s provided an example of how an economy can turn itself round with a science-led industrial strategy, drawing on scientists, employers, and wider civil society. I'd back this up with a new £250bn National Investment Bank and a network of regional development banks, able to unlock the potential of our regions and nations, providing the long-term, patient investment for high-potential projects that our financial system otherwise leaves behind.

Successive governments have promised support for evidence-based policy making, but have failed to deliver. How will you ensure that you are well-informed when making policy decisions, given that the current civil service infrastructure does not seem to allow for this?

The role of government chief scientists has been critical in starting to win the battle for robust, evidence-based policymaking – even if many of the decisions taken by this current government have appeared to fly in the face of that evidence, not least on the issue of climate change. I want to see science brought into the heart of policymaking: in the development of a modern industrial strategy; in informing public policy in all aspects; and, not least, in informing the public and improving scientific education.

Where would you rank climate change in terms of the current risks to the country, and how would you act to mitigate both its causes and effects? Should nuclear power have a greater role in doing this?

Climate change is the biggest single challenge facing not only this country but the whole of humanity. Action to mitigate its causes and effects should be an essential part of how a modern government acts. We need to get on track with meeting our obligations under the Climate Change Act. At the international level, I think we have to take our fair share to meet the goals of the Paris agreement.

Britain could be a world-leader in action on climate change, and in developing the low-carbon economy that is the best way to secure jobs and living standards into the future. So we will accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy, and drive the expansion of the green industries and jobs of the future, using our National Investment Bank to invest in public and community-owned renewable energy. We will deliver clean energy and curb energy bill rises for households. We will defend and extend the environmental protections gained from the EU.

The deal at Hinkley Point has brought the UK's energy and climate change policy into sharp focus. I've been particularly concerned that a major national asset is being handed over to developers and producers from overseas. This is not a sensible or democratic way to develop a national energy strategy, and when the costs involved to consumers, especially big producers, are so astronomically high, the economics of the deal make little sense. We'll be monitoring the situation closely to make sure the jobs the community has been promised are delivered; that users and taxpayers get a fair deal; and that the UK's overriding commitments to meeting climate change goals are on target.

The NHS currently spends hundreds of millions of pounds funding alternative and homeopathic medicine. Would this policy continue under your Labour government?

I don't support the NHS spending taxpayers’ money on medicine where it is not backed up by clear, scientific evidence as to its effectiveness.

Genetically modified (GM) crops offer the opportunity to drastically increase global food yields, but have not seen substantial uptake in this country. Would you support their greater use within the UK?

This question gets us to the central issue of evidence-based policymaking. There are fundamental questions at stake about the ability of humanity to feed itself, but, equally, we must recognise the public concerns that have been raised around GM crops. I would want to see well-informed, widespread public debate on this and other scientific issues. On issues of intense public controversy like this it is only with public consent that progress can be made – that's what a democratic society should be about. I will fight for improved scientific education in schools, and have been concerned by efforts to undermine or remove key parts of the science national curriculum like removing climate change education.

During the last leadership contest, both the leader and deputy leader promised to have a cabinet-level minster for science. This did not happen. Will you commit to having a cabinet-level shadow minister for science?

Science certainly deserves more prominence than the current government is giving it, with both the closure of a dedicated climate change department and the disappearance of science into the expanded business department. This does require the creation of a Cabinet-level minister with a clear responsibility for science. However, I think science and scientific evidence should be present in every part of government policymaking, cutting across the different departments.

The government chief scientists already do a good job of making sure this happens, but I would like to see scientific expertise brought into making critical economic decisions, particularly in the development of an active industrial strategy. Finland's example of the Science and Technology Policy Committee, drawing in scientists, businesses, unions and others in civil society in the development of a high-technology industrial strategy has been exemplary in this respect.

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