This dissertation will examine how concepts drawn from the historical institutionalist school of political science help us understand and explain policy stability and change in UK science, research and development policy from the 1970s – shortly before the ascent of Margaret Thatcher to the office of Prime Minister – to the present day.

In particular, it seeks to investigate and analyse the following:

• Whether the shift in science, research and development policy that occurred under the Thatcher governments in the 1980s – broadly speaking, by cutting support for near-market (‘applied’) research and focussing funding and other policy support on curiosity-driven (‘basic’) research/pure science – constitutes a ‘critical juncture’ within the meaning ascribed to it by scholars/analysts of historical institutionalism, applying up-to-date academic thinking around ‘critical junctures’ in recent analyses that have applied it to policy change across different institutions/policy areas in Western, democratic nations.

• By extension, whether the apparently stable, cross-party political consensus in the UK on R&D policy that survived broadly intact from the 1980s until the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the emergence of the 2017 Industrial Strategy White Paper, which saw the government’s role as funding ‘basic’ (‘curiosity-driven’) research – primarily through the research councils – while leaving ‘near-market’ (‘applied’) research to be funded by industry and the market, satisfies the definition of ‘path dependence’ as it has been defined in academic literature on the topic that relates to institutions/policy areas in Western, democratic nations.

• Examining whether the development, discursive framing and ultimately the trajectory of UK science, research and development policy – and the institutions that govern its implementation – since the 1970s should be understood through a combination of aspects of historical institutionalism, in particular the elements of path dependence, critical junctures and gradual institutional change, with those of the more recent discursive institutionalism, namely the focus on the role of ideas and discourse. In other words, to what extent do agents’ perceptions of their social, political, and economic interests and values bring about institutional change and therefore policy change.

• Briefly consider the two other schools of thought within New Institutionalism – sociological institutionalism and rational choice institutionalism – and whether these alternative theoretical perspectives provide a more complete explanation for how UK science, research and development policy and institutions have evolved since the 1970s.

The dissertation would also examine the following subject as well:

• Drawing on the literatures of path dependency and ideational change in public policy, whether we can yet tell whether the Brexit referendum in 2016, and Theresa May’s government’s adoption of an Industrial Strategy in 2017, is truly a mirror-image reversal of the major policy shift that took place under the Thatcher government of the 1980s – namely, a shift from government supporting near-market, applied research to focussing principally on ‘basic’ research – or if, despite the more widespread use of terms such as ‘Industrial Strategy’, the 2017 White Paper and having that term enshrined in the name of a government department, i.e. the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, there has been a continuation of the status quo ante, in terms of policies and institutions governing them.

• Considering the role of the policy entrepreneur in delivering critical junctures in UK science, research and development policy in both the late 1980s and the 2010s. In particular, focussing on the activities of George Guise – Head of Thatcher’s Number 10 Policy Unit – and Mariana Mazzucato – and her ideas about the ‘Mission Economy’ and a ‘Challenge-Driven Innovation Policy’ in changing opinions in the 2010s.

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