Innovation is our ticket to solving the world’s biggest challenges
From the light bulb to the World Wide Web, to ground-breaking theories in gravity and black holes, DNA’s double helix and the deployment of the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine, we can all rightly be proud that the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of scientific discovery for centuries.
In February, the Prime Minister established the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) to forge a path for the UK to become the most innovative economy in the world and a truly global science and technology superpower. Now, to truly take a leading role in this field on the global stage and make gains on today’s challenges, we must ensure we’re using our global science for global impact.
The newly created DSIT has put the UK’s role in innovation at the heart of the government’s agenda and given it a top seat at the Cabinet table. Already, the department has made incredible progress; launching a new science and technology framework setting out how the UK will cement its position as a science and tech superpower by 2030, publishing the AI white paper, investing over £370m in the technologies of tomorrow and publishing a new International Tech Strategy with the foreign office to lay out the UK’s global vision for the responsible use of technology. And our backing for the science and technology is government-wide. The Chancellor’s recent Spring Budget committed more than £3.5bn of government funding towards the future of science and technology and recognised the important role R&D plays in the UK’s economic growth, as well as the National Quantum Strategy detailing an ambitious 10-year vision for one of our priority technologies.
These are material steps forward. But as we face geopolitical instability, economic uncertainty, and a shifting climate – interconnected challenges that threaten our health, energy, and food security – how do we build on the UK’s investment to date and ensure it translates to leadership on the world stage for the benefit of all?
It is through bold action and a higher-risk tolerance that we will find the next scientific and technological breakthroughs
As people coming from two different fields, government, and philanthropy, we have different ways of looking at the world, but we agree on three key areas where we should collectively focus our efforts to achieve this goal.
First, we should all make sure DSIT is a success. This is the first ever government department dedicated solely to advancing the country’s most promising discoveries, with the funding and resource to boost infrastructure, investment, and skills. The UK already has the best scientists; our universities and research institutes are a hotbed for talent, and internationally recognised for pioneering breakthroughs. And that science has attracted billions of pounds of foreign investment and is key to delivering on the government’s priority to grow the economy and create better-paid jobs. The UK’s success in deploying the Covid-19 vaccine so quickly was thanks to unprecedented collaboration between partners, including the government and the life sciences sector. Through continued partnership and a joined-up approach across government and institutions, the UK will continue to be able to tackle the challenges of both today and tomorrow, championing success stories on the international stage.
Secondly, we need to recognise the vital role of the private sector and philanthropy. The UK government has committed to investing £20bn per annum in R&D by 2024/25, a 33 per cent increase over the current Parliament. But increased private sector and philanthropic investment can make this funding go further, bringing fresh talent, scale of impact and much needed expertise in taking concepts into production.
In December, the UK government announced a 10-year partnership with Moderna that will bring significant investment in mRNA R&D to the UK and build a state-of-the-art vaccine manufacturing centre in Harwell with the ability to produce up to 250 million vaccines a year. Recognising the UK’s scientific leadership, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested over $1bn in the UK on health, development, and agricultural innovations that are now changing and saving lives around the world.
It is through bold action and a higher-risk tolerance – qualities where the private sector can lead – that we will find the next scientific and technological breakthroughs. We call on the holders of private capital to increase their investment and recognise the UK’s strong credentials as a hub for growth, with global ramifications.
Finally, we need to think globally from the outset. The Covid-19 pandemic wiped out 20 years of progress in global health in its first 20 weeks, interrupting everything from routine childhood immunisation campaigns to the delivery of bed nets that prevent malaria. The number of people in Africa experiencing food insecurity is expected to grow from around 278 million people in 2021 to 310 million before the end of the decade. Climate change is playing havoc with the natural systems we depend on.
These are problems for the UK too. The recent Spring Budget demonstrated our determination to collaborate globally, confirming the UK’s support to make the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulation Agency (MHRA) one of the most progressive regulators in the world. The funding will be used to accelerate routes for bringing innovative medical products developed in the UK onto the market, as well as those made and approved by other trusted regulatory partners globally.
Britain’s leading tech sector presents similar opportunities for global impact. With OpenUK estimating £40bn of economic upside from our open-source tech sector, developing open digital infrastructure for much needed global healthcare and financial services access benefits the UK and end users around the world. For us to reap the rewards of our investment in science and technology, it’s about more than becoming an innovation nation: it’s ensuring this scientific horsepower is used to combat the global challenges that affect everyone everywhere.
The UK has laid the groundwork for leadership in science and innovation. Now is the time to challenge ourselves on its impact beyond our own borders and in doing so reinforce our leadership on the global stage. What’s good for Britain is good for the world.
Michelle Donelan, Conservative MP for Chippenham & Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology. Joe Cerrell, managing director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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