Science policy observers say that the UK’s research sector will be ‘breathing a sigh of relief’ following the Labour party’s landslide victory in the 2024 UK general election.

The result ends 14 years of Conservative rule and is the worst defeat in the party’s history. With two constituencies yet to declare, the Labour party, led by Keir Starmer, has gained 211 seats to achieve a total of 412, while the Conservatives led by Rishi Sunak have lost 250 seats, leaving them with just 121 members of parliament.

The Conservative MP Michelle Donelan, who had served as secretary of state for science, innovation and technology, lost her seat to Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Mathew.

‘The last 14 years were a rollercoaster ride for the UK research system, with austerity, a change to the regime for funding in English universities, commitments to significant growth in science spending alongside a hard Brexit that led to a hiatus in Horizon participation,’ Kieron Flanagan, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Manchester tells Chemistry World.

‘We also had a culture war on universities and a crisis in university funding driven by the political disaster that is the tuition fee system, plus deliberate government efforts to scare off the international students the system relies upon to keep afloat,’ he adds. ‘Of course, Labour has now to deal with the consequences of all this, but many researchers will surely today be breathing a sigh of relief that the rollercoaster ride may at last be over.’

Keir Starmer celebrates with a crowd who are carrying placards that say CHANGE.

Source: © Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

Members of the science community have called on Keir Starmer’s new Labour government to invest in the research sector

The view that the new government is likely to bring greater stability for the research sector is shared by James Wilsdon, an expert on research policy based at University College London. ‘The starting point for the science research community, as it is for the nation, is that after a period that’s been characterised by political instability … we at least have the prospect now of a government with a strong mandate, a large majority and a clear intent to roll their sleeves up and get on and tackle the issues that it needs and, of course, research and science will be a part of that,’ he says. ‘There’s lots of detail that we don’t know about the Labour agenda … but the signals we have had are positive: a return to long term, stable frameworks, which can allow the sector to proceed, to invest, to plan with confidence, and also just a reset of the broader tone of relations between government, certainly in the university system, which will be very welcome.’

Richard Torbett, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, offered his congratulations to Starmer and the Labour party. ‘During its campaign, Labour was right to single out the UK’s life sciences sector as a critical partner for their plans to deliver positive change and economic growth,’ he said in a statement published on 5 July. ‘A strong industry-government partnership will be vital to ensure that we continue to discover breakthrough medical innovation in the UK and ensure NHS patients are among the first people in the world to benefit from the latest medicines and vaccines.’

Torbett added the new government ‘needs to hit the ground running’ and set out a clear, detailed plan for what it will do in the coming weeks and years to address ‘persistent inequalities in access to medicines and vaccines as well as unlock our sector’s true growth potential’.

Alicia Greated, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering said the new Labour government had a ‘real opportunity’ to drive change in the UK. ‘Science, engineering, and broader R&D are huge assets for the UK’s ability to innovate and produce economic growth, whilst at the same time holding strong support from the public,’ she said. ‘In the election campaign, the Labour party recognised this fantastic tool at their disposal. By working together with us, and the wider R&D sector, we can all make the most of the opportunities ahead for R&D to improve the lives and livelihoods of people across the UK.’

The general secretary of the University and College Union, Jo Grady, said Labour’s win was the result trade unionists needed after ‘14 long years of Tory misrule’. In a statement published online, Grady called on the new government to commit to ‘massive investment in public services, including sustainable public funding for colleges and universities’.

Steve Elliott, chief executive of the Chemical Industries Association, also offered congratulations to Starmer and the Labour party. ‘What we now need is policy stability and a partnership with business, the trade unions and others to deliver economic growth, environmental progress and social inclusion for business and for the UK as a whole,’ he said.

Update: James Wilsdon’s comments were added to this story on 5 July 2024.