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Scientific Britannia - how can Britain become a science and tech powerhouse?

7 min read

The government has been clear in its aim to turn Britain into a science and technology powerhouse. But in a difficult climate for public spending, can it hope to do so? Tom Hunter from Dods Political Intelligence looks at the plans.

In June 2021, riding high from the success of the Covid vaccine rollout, Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote, “We want the UK to regain its status as a science superpower.”

Spearheading the effort is George Freeman, the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation. He told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in February that to achieve this goal the government was shifting science, technology, and innovation from specialist thinking to the economic mainstream; increasing annual R&D spending by 30 per cent in three years; making sure UK science could solve global challenges, such as tackling climate change and hunger; ensuring the best young scientists start their careers in the UK; and attracting more international R&D investment – and then “harnessing all of that for geopolitical influence”.

This drive to become a “science superpower” is spread across a variety of strategies, advisory boards, and reviews, but questions have been raised about whether the government can put its money where its mouth is in the current tough economic environment.

Funding and investment

The government has committed to spending 2.4 per cent of GDP – the average for industrialised countries – on R&D by 2027, a significant increase on the recent average of 1.7 percent.

However, it has pushed back its timeframe for boosting annual public R&D investment to £22bn from £14.9bn last year by two years to 2026-27 amid the tough economic environment. The budget for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the main public R&D funding agency, was also cut by £700m to £7.9bn following the government’s decision to cut spending on overseas development aid (ODA), which had been used to fund international research projects. The Royal Society described the cuts as a “devastating blow to global research". BEIS also announced in May that it would be bringing its bilateral ODA funding in China to an end and winding down the Newton Research Fund and Global Challenges Research Fund, seen as key tools of R&D soft power and influence.

UK researchers have also experienced complications in collaborating with European counterparts and projects following Brexit, as the UK awaits confirmation of its association to the EU’s Horizon Europe programme. Warnings from the European Research Council that grants could be pulled have created uncertainty for scientists, although BEIS has said it would guarantee approved funding.

Earlier this year, the government confirmed £39.8bn for public R&D investment over the next three years – the largest budget to date and the bulk of which has been allocated across UKRI and its research councils. British universities receive a larger share of government science funding than in many other countries, where companies and research institutes play a larger role. Experts say that to achieve its science ambitions, the government needs to stimulate private sector investment.

R&D tax credits are key, with different schemes for small and large companies that together are worth more than £5bn a year to industry. HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) is reviewing the incentives, with industry generally supportive of their expansion.

Government can also encourage corporate R&D by helping science companies collaborate with each other and with universities, particularly by nurturing science and research campuses, such as Harwell in Oxfordshire, home of the UK Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre. US firm Catalent Biologics bought a biologics development and manufacturing facility there in April and plans to invest about £120m in the site.

People and place

To generate the workforce needed to match the investment, the BEIS R&D People and Culture Strategy includes plans to attract postgraduate students, identify skills gaps, and set up a Youth Academy. There’s also a focus on identifying solid career paths, further support for early career researchers, and ensuring the development of leadership and management skills.

This drive to attract scientists is supported by the Office for Talent – established in the 2020 UK R&D Roadmap – and the Global Talent Visa, which enables non-UK citizens to work in British academia or research if they are a leader or potential leader in science, medicine, engineering, or humanities. This has been bolstered by plans, launched in May, for a new High Potential Individual visa for graduates of a top global university who have shown potential to benefit the UK workforce, and Scale-up, coming later this year, which allows participating firms to sponsor and recruit highly skilled foreigners.

In 2019, the government estimated that the UK needed at least 260,000 additional researchers working in R&D across universities, business and industry. The Royal Society warned last year that significant growth in those workers was unlikely without additional action for government.

The government is also keen to spread R&D expertise around the UK as part of its levelling up agenda. Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows there are significant geographical disparities in R&D spend per capita across the UK, with 52 per cent of spending by government and universities going to the East and South East of England, including London.

While the government has yet to publish its planned R&D Place Strategy, there have been signs of investment moving beyond the traditional hub, the “golden triangle” between London, Oxford and Cambridge. These include research campuses such as Glasgow City Innovation District, and the Cheshire-based Sci-Tech Daresbury, and Alderley Park.

The Levelling Up White Paper, published earlier this year, set a target for the government to invest at least 55 per cent of its total domestic R&D funding outside the Greater South East by 2024-25. It also outlines ambitions to create private-public-academic partnerships to “replicate the Stanford-Silicon Valley and MIT-Greater Boston models of clustering research excellence”, with pilots centred on Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Glasgow City-Region, and backed by £100m of investment for these three new “Innovation Accelerators”.

Innovation and institutions

The UK Innovation Strategy, published in mid-2021, sets out the government’s priorities on future industries and opportunities, including seven new “technology families”: advanced materials and manufacturing; AI, digital and advanced computing; bioinformatics and genomics; engineering biology; electronics, photonics and quantum; energy and environment technologies; and robotics and smart machines.

To support this effort the government is setting up an array of institutions, some inspired by the US approach. Based on the Pentagon’s Darpa model, the UK’s Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) aims to bring a high-risk, high-reward approach to science in Britain. While its initial budget of £800m over four years is relatively small, the brainchild of former Johnson adviser Dominic Cummings will be tasked with pursuing some of the new technologies outlined in the Innovation Strategy.

A review of the R&D organisational landscape was also announced in the strategy, to be led by Nobel Laureate Professor Sir Paul Nurse of the Francis Crick Institute.

A new ministerial National Science and Technology Council, led by the Prime Minister, will help drive strategy on how science and technology will tackle societal challenges – although peers have raised concerns about its infrequent meetings.

The Council will be supported by a new Office for Science and Technology Strategy, based in the Cabinet Office and headed up by Sir Patrick Vallance who adds National Technology Adviser to his role of Chief Scientific Adviser. It remains to be seen how these two bodies will work with the existing Council for Science and Technology - which advises the Prime Minister on science and technology policy - and the Government Office for Science which Sir Patrick also heads up.

The government’s focus on people and place, and innovation and new institutions, indicate a concerted effort to put in place the building blocks to turn the UK into a science superpower. But time will tell if it follows through in the current tough economic climate with the funding required to realise its lofty ambition.

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