If the UK is to become the ‘science superpower’ the government wants it to, then it must do more to support training and education in Stem and redesign the visa system to attract more international talent, according to a new report by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE).

The shortage of Stem skills is an ongoing problem and has been estimated to cost the UK economy £1.5 billion per year, the report notes. In 2021, the government acknowledged that the R&D sector will need at least an additional 150,000 researchers and technicians by 2030 if the country wants to realise its ambitions for R&D. The same year, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) estimated a shortfall of over 173,000 workers in the Stem sector.

The report calls for the government to better understand skills gaps and needs, and align education provision accordingly. It would also like to see a range of incentives to support smaller employers provide workplace training, including streamlining the regulatory framework for apprenticeships and more funding for further Stem training. Another priority is to support the new R&D clusters and help regional diffusion of innovation.

CaSE argues that more needs to be done to promote the UK as a destination for skilled scientists and researchers too. The report recommends that the government reduce the upfront cost of UK visas in line with international competitors, and introduce more flexible visas to support researcher mobility on a range of timescales. It also points out that applicants and smaller businesses require support to navigate the visa system.

‘The government must coordinate and support an integrated skills system, from technical education and apprenticeships, to upskilling and reskilling in the workplace, to unlock skills for a more innovative UK,’ said Sarah Main, executive director, Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE).

‘Ensuring that the UK has the right skills across all four nations is vital to our long-term prosperity,’ said a spokesperson for the Royal Society. ‘This will require changes to our education system. Studying a broader range of subjects to 18 and significantly expanding technical routes into research and innovation careers would help ensure more young people have the foundations they need to achieve this. We need a coherent talent offer, that joins up education, skills, science and immigration policy if we are to deliver benefits for all corners of the country.’ The society strongly supports CaSE’s call for a shake-up of the visa system.

Malcolm Skingle, chair of the Science Industry Partnerships, an alliance of employers working to improve the science workforce, supports CaSE’s call for wider incentives to overcome some of the financial barriers in recruiting and training apprentices. ‘As our 2023 apprenticeship survey found, new apprenticeship starts in England’s science sector fell by half over the previous five years, creating a very challenging environment for employers to recruit talent in a range of important roles. The decline in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) starts is even more pronounced, with a fall of almost 75% over the same period. We believe SMEs should receive specialised support to address this alarming decline.’

Skingle also agrees with CaSE that government should adopt ‘a pragmatic approach’ to the way qualifications and standards are designed to meet the sector’s skills needs. ‘This should also be backed up with more funding to help attract the talented people to teach learners now and in the future.’

The report highlights many of the longstanding weaknesses of the UK skills system, including a lack of understanding of current and emerging skills gaps and the need to better incentivise skills investment amongst SMEs, says Lizzie Crowley, senior skills policy adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development. ‘Smaller firms typically face greater barriers to training investment than larger firms and require additional support. In our view, this should include enhanced business and people management support for small firms, to build employer capability and an appetite to invest in skills and improve how people are managed and developed in the workplace.’