UK’s ambition to become a ‘science and tech superpower’ on track to become another empty slogan

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez August 8, 2022 Audio mode
Summary:
The government has time and time again said that science and technology are key to the UK’s future - but dig a little deeper and substance is lacking.

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In the wake of Brexit, which requires a new approach to thinking through economic growth for the UK, the British Government has consistently hailed science and technology as key to the nation’s long term prosperity. However, a new report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has found that the UK’s strategy to become a ‘science and technology superpower’ is becoming an empty slogan and that the strategy is unfocused. 

This may not be particularly surprising, given the UK’s recent track record for empty slogans (‘Project Fear’ and ‘Fund our NHS instead’ slapped on the side of a bus spring to mind), but given the UK’s capability in science and technology - and the potential it has in these fields - the Committee’s report is particularly disappointing. 

The British Government will likely point to its work in delivering an AI strategy for the UK, or the data protection reforms it has planned since separating from the EU, but the Committee’s report points to an incoherence in the UK’s approach and a general lack of any sort of implementation plan. 

The report highlights how people armed with responsibility for delivering the strategy aren’t meeting regularly to coordinate plans, how the UK has strained its reputation on the international stage, and how high inflation is likely going to impact the nation’s (welcome) commitments to increase R&D spend. 

The Committee’s Chair commented on the findings and said: 

The Government has high ambitions for science and technology, which the Committee welcomes. Science and technology are crucial to the UK’s development and economic prosperity. Even with significantly lower spending than comparable countries, the UK’s excellent science base punches above its weight and can provide the tools to tackle major challenges like net zero.

But science policy has been far from perfect. R&D is a long-term endeavour which requires sustained focus and an implementation plan. But we found a plethora of strategies in different areas with little follow-through and less linking them together. There are numerous bodies and organisations with unclear or apparently overlapping responsibilities, and more are being added in the form of the National Science and Technology Council and the Office for Science and Technology Strategy. It is often unclear who is accountable for individual policies, and critically, for delivery.

The Government has suggested areas of reform to increase private sector investment in R&D such as public procurement for innovation, regulatory reform, and R&D tax credits. But these areas are perennial suggestions. New ideas - and specific details – developed with business are needed if this time the outcomes are to be different.

On the international stage, the failure to associate to Horizon Europe, and recent cuts to Official Development] Assistance, have damaged the UK’s reputation. The UK cannot be a science superpower in isolation; relationships must be repaired.

UK science and technology remains strong and respected around the world, but they will not deliver their full potential for the UK with an inconsistent and unclear science policy from Government. A new administration must retain the ambition for science and technology and develop a clear plan for delivery.

Details

The Committee’s report outlines that whilst there is already an exceptional science and technology base in the UK, which could be utilized to deliver economic growth and improve public services, there are a number of areas of significant concern. 

The report urges that the new incoming Prime Minister should not abandon the government’s current commitments to science and technology and should chair regular meetings of the National Science and Technology Council. There is also currently no Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, and the report adds that the new Prime Minister should make it a priority to appoint one to a cabinet-level position. 

The government has said that it will increase the proportion of GDP spent on R&D to 2.4% by 2027, with the aim of making the UK a ‘science and tech superpower’ by 2030 - but the Committee notes that international and domestic attempts to achieve this rate of increase have generally failed. The evidence received by the Committee has not given it enough confidence that this time will be any different. The report adds:

Private sector spending will be vital to reach the 2.4% target; and yet industry does not yet feel engaged with the strategy process. The Government has identified reform of public procurement, regulations and tax credits as levers for increasing private R&D investment. But these are areas in which there are perennial suggestions for reform, and the Government has set out few specific proposals. It must outline reforms commensurate with the ambition of the target and show that it is not just doing the same things and expecting a different outcome.

While the increase in public funding for R&D is welcome, we note that the increase this represents in real terms is being eroded by inflation. History tells us that R&D budgets are often cut in times of economic difficulty. This must be avoided.

The Committee’s primary concern is that there appears to be a lack of an overarching plan for the strategic development of UK science and technology. Whilst the government recognizes that it cannot be “world-leading” in everything, it has not actually identified the areas of science and tech that it wants the country to specialize in, nor has it been clear about specific priorities. 

As we’ve seen in other areas, this government has made some big and bold statements about what it wants to achieve, but has been careful not to outline many clear, measurable outcomes that it can be measured against. 

For instance, on a fundamental level, what does being a ‘science and tech superpower by 2030’ actually look like? The report notes: 

Unclear targets, and poor communication, jeopardise the achievement of the Government’s ambitions.

The key finding from the Committee’s evidence is that there is a profusion of sectoral strategies in areas such as artificial intelligence and life sciences that ultimately need to be consolidated into a “logical whole”. Initiatives such as the Plan for Growth, the Integrated Review and the Levelling Up White Paper recognize the contribution that science and technology can make to a range of policies, but the lack of coherent strategy has meant that delivery bodies are being pulled in numerous directions with insufficient resources to meet the demand. 

The report notes: 

R&D is a long-term endeavour, requiring consistent support, funding and messaging from the Government. Instead, policies and priorities have changed rapidly, with supposedly decadal strategies, such as the Industrial Strategy, abandoned after a few years. The reviews into aspects of science policy, such as the second Nurse review, the Tickell review into bureaucracy and the forthcoming review of the Research Excellence Framework, could drive welcome reform, but frequent reviews can be disruptive.

The Committee recommends that the National Science and Technology Council and the Office for Science and Technology Strategy could prove valuable in addressing some of these concerns, if they are able to coordinate science and technology across government. They should work to provide a clear message from government on the overall strategy and they should be held accountable for implementing cross-governmental science and tech policies. 

However, what’s worrying is that the Committee has found that they are yet to make clear how they will fulfil their potential. The report highlights how the National Science and Technology Committee has only met three times since it was established in July 2021, and the Office for Science and Technology Strategy has not published any documents or revealed what it actually intends to do. It adds: 

There is a lack of clarity on the respective roles of the key players within the science and technology system. Without this, we fear that these new bodies, which have been added to an already crowded science and technology landscape, could blur accountability and increase bureaucracy. The relationship between these bodies and key government agencies, particularly UKRI, needs to be clarified.

In addition to the above, the Committee notes how whilst the UK wants to be a ‘science and tech superpower’, its international approach has been “somewhat inconsistent”. The UK’s reputation has been damaged by cuts to Official Development Assistance, which meant ongoing projects were abandoned, and the UK’s future connection to Horizon Europe - one of the world’s largest research projects - is in jeopardy over Brexit rows. 

The report argues that there is an urgent need to rebuild international relationships. 

My take

For those of us that have been following this area for a while, the Committee's conclusions won’t come as any huge surprise. But it speaks to a broader problem in government at the moment, where ideas are plentiful, but execution is lacking. The ambitions to become a tech and science superpower are worthy, but without follow through they are meaningless. Whoever the next Prim Minister ends up being, let’s hope they have an eye for detail and don’t just rely on selling big ideas (although that may be wishful thinking). 

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