Today (4th August 2022) our report on delivering a UK science and technology strategy, “Science and technology superpower”: more than a slogan?, is published by the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee on which I am honoured to serve.
There is a tremendous economic opportunity for the UK if we invest, streamline, and focus on delivering a clear and coherent national science and technology strategy and I hope this report will be an important part of helping realise that opportunity.
As well as outlining an ambition, to make the UK a “science and tech superpower” by 2030, the Government has set targets to increase the proportion of GDP spent on research and development (R&D) to 2.4% by 2027. This level of ambition and the 2.4% target are welcome but much greater clarity and coherence about the plan to realise these targets, and with the 2.4% target, ideally exceed it, is needed.
It is also extremely welcome that the Government has increased public funding for the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and established the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) as a cabinet committee as well as creating a new body, the Office for Science and Technology (OST), to prioritise science and technology at the heart of Government.
Both the NSTC and OST have great potential but with their arrival, there is an even greater need to clarify how all the bureaucratic layers will work and be additive rather than, potentially, increasing bureaucracy and blurring accountability. The relationship between these new bodies and key government agencies, particularly the UKRI, must be clarified to address this.
The Government is clear about the ambition to be a superpower but in which specific areas and how? Whilst various sectoral strategies in areas such as artificial intelligence and life sciences provide more detail and a clearer policy direction, they need to be understood in the context of an overall plan. Initiatives such as the Plan for Growth, the Integrated Review and the Levelling Up White Paper recognise the contribution science and technology can make to a range of policies but have meant that delivery bodies, particularly UKRI, are being pulled in numerous directions with insufficient resources.
The “science superpower” phrase has been used by the Prime Minister and Chancellor since last year and clearly has wide support with Sir Patrick Vallance also using the phrase this year. Unfortunately, although perhaps inevitably, there is some concern that rather than a coherent strategy it is a political slogan, self-proclaimed rather than objectively substantiated. These doubts will be addressed with greater clarity on the areas laid out in our report and a laser focus on implementation.
Our inquiry makes several detailed recommendations but in essence we need:
- clear targets and outcome measures,
- an understanding of R&D as a long-term endeavour,
- a complete commitment to international collaboration and working,
- to crowd in private investment and a
- a laser focus on implementation.
Key findings of the inquiry are summarised in this table:
|Positive||2.4% target, including increasing public investment in R&DEstablishment of Cabinet sub-committee and secretariat (NSTC and OSTS)Successful network of Chief Scientific AdvisersSuggestion of a more strategic approach with metrics to measure progress|
|Negative||Potential exclusion from Horizon, resulting in loss of collaboration and capacityCuts to Official Development Assistance budgetFrequent policy changesProliferation of sector-specific strategiesAdditional layers of bureaucracy without clear reporting lines and accountabilityLack of engagement with industry on 2.4% targetLack of output from Cabinet subcommittee and secretariat2.4% target is still behind comparable nations|
|Queries||Absence of specific reforms to regulation, procurement, and tax creditsLack of clarity about relationship between UKRI and department researchLack of clear long-term commitment to R&DUnclear how R&D targets fit into overall economic planUnclear how Government will overcome risk aversion in R and D investment|
Specific recommendations include:
The Government should set out what, specifically, it wants to achieve in each of the broad areas of science and technology it has identified. There should be a clear implementation plan including measurable targets and key outcomes in priority areas, and an explanation of how they will be delivered. (Paragraph 18)
The Government should update parliament on its progress on developing metrics by the end of 2022. Once metrics are available, an independent body should be empowered to monitor progress towards the Government’s science and technology targets and report annually to Parliament and government. (Paragraph 20)
In defining an overarching implementation plan, the Government should consolidate existing sector-specific strategies that are working well and monitor progress against them to ensure they provide a clear and consistent message. (Paragraph 23)
The Government should make every effort to establish science and technology policy for the long term, building on existing policies and with clear, cross-party support. (Paragraph 27)
Sector-based taskforces should be established, providing a single point of contact with industry, to identify opportunities for regulatory reform, explaining how they will encourage innovation. (Paragraph 108)
The Government should explain what role the services sector will play in increased research and development spending and outline how the 2.4% target fits with the structure of the UK’s economy (Paragraph 128)
The Government must develop clear incentives to encourage late-stage investors and support companies to scale-up. The recommendations of the Life Sciences Scale-up Taskforce should be published. The Government should explore mechanisms to recoup investments from companies that have received public money if they move abroad. (Paragraph 135)
The Government should explain what it wants public innovation investment to achieve, which technologies and sectors it wants to support, and which mechanisms it will use to provide funding in each case. (Paragraph 142)
We have an exceptional science and technology base in the UK and the benefits of science, technology and innovation can extend to the delivery of economic growth, improved public services and strategic international advantage. My own view, and this extends slightly beyond the scope of the inquiry, is that the UK has the opportunity to be at the forefront of the 4th Industrial Revolution. It is clear that in the UK key advantages rest in specific areas such as ethical AI and Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT) and we need to see this developed more in government, as well as by government, for government and, most importantly, for the nation.
This article, ‘Delivering a UK Science and Technology Strategy’ was also published on the Foundation for Science and Technology Blog