UK’s goal to become ‘science superpower’ will fail without change
The UK Government’s ambitions to become a ‘science and technology superpower’ urgently needs a shift in approach, otherwise it runs the risk of becoming an ’empty slogan’.
The warning comes in a recent report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, which says the UK’s current strategy is unfocused, and that the Government needs to better define its strategy to achieve its goals.
The Government announced its desire to become a ‘superpower’ in the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.
The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), headed by the Prime Minister, and an accompanying Office of Science and Technology (OSTS), were formed in June 2021 to help achieve the stated goal.
In October 2021, the Government said it would invest £20 billion in research and development by 2024/25, which then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak said was “a record investment to secure the UK’s future as a global science superpower.”
The House of Lords Committee says it welcomes the Government‘s high ambitions for the sector, as they are essential for UK‘s advancement and economic success.
However, the Committee is worried that the absence of a clear implementation plan will prevent UK science and technology from realising its potential to support a high-tech, high-growth economy.
The peers, led by Committee chair Julia King (Baroness Brown of Cambridge), said there were frequent policy changes, no measurable outcomes, no delivery strategy, and a short-termist attitude (quelle surprise – Ed).
King said the Committee had found multiple plans in different areas with little follow-through, and that many bodies and organisations had ambiguous or seemingly overlapping roles.
The science and technology industry itself has expressed repeated concerns about the availability of funding, now that the UK has left the European Union. The Turing Institute, the UK Space Agency, the Royal Academy of Engineering, UKCloud, and many leading universities appeared before the Committee, and many expressed serious concerns about the UK’s lack of association with Horizon Europe post-Brexit.
Horizon is the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation, with a budget of €95.5 billion.
“On the international stage, the failure to associate to Horizon Europe, and recent cuts to Official Development Assistance, have damaged the UK’s reputation,” King noted.
The report notes that ‘Between 2014 and 2020, UK researchers received over €7 billion from the ‘Horizon 2020′ programme … 12.1% of all the funds awarded, second only to Germany.’
The UK Government has put forward no credible alternative to-date. Worse, even approved work under Horizon has stalled. Since leaving the EU, researchers in the UK have been unable to receive EU grants, because they must be based in an EU member state or associated country, according to Horizon Europe rules.
The Committee’s key recommendation is that the Government must better define its strategy and outline its goals for each of its priority areas, as well as consolidate its current policies.
The strategy should include measurable targets, a clear implementation plan, and long-term sustainability – and an attempt by the Government to mend its foreign relationships.
The worst part is that leaving Horizon was wholly unnecessary – and not something that was ever meant to happen. The industry was assured that UK scientists could remain part of the programme post-Brexit, and the UK was due to keep paying into the fund.
It will come as no surprise that the Government’s hardline approach to anything associated with the letters ‘EU’ has soured that relationship. Scientists are stuck in the middle of a bitter dispute between the two bodies, and many have lost access to funding entirely or are being forced to relocate to the EU.
While the UK can probably make up the funding shortfall – we have been paying about £2 billion per year to take part in Horizon Europe – it cannot replace the international coooperation that is a hallmark of modern science.
A mooted UK replacement for Horizon, informally known as Plan B, is still very much in the weeds – with a decision on the UK’s membership of Horizon due by September.