Stick to science superpower target, next prime minister urged

The next prime minister of the United Kingdom has been urged to stick to Conservative government pledges to increase research and development spending and to have a “laser focus” on implementing plans to turn Britain into a science superpower.

With British Conservative Party members in the middle of deciding who will take over from Boris Johnson after he announced he would step down as UK prime minister once a new Tory party leader is elected, an influential group of parliamentarians has issued a timely report demanding much greater clarity on government ambitions to make the country a science and technology superpower by 2030.

In their hard-hitting report titled Science and Technology Superpower: More than a slogan?, the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee urges the incoming prime minister to stick to the government’s pledge to increase the proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on research and development to 2.4% by 2027 and to ensure that “laudable rhetoric” is matched by “measurable outcomes” so it is crystal clear what the extra funding is to achieve.

To this end, the committee wants the new prime minister to immediately appoint a cabinet-level new minister for science, research and innovation, a post that has remained unfilled since George Freeman resigned as part of a mass walkout of ministers designed to bring to a close three years of mishaps and missteps that bedevilled Johnson’s prime ministerial reign.

Conservative MPs have boiled down the leadership contest to replace Johnson to a fight between UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak. Only Tory party members, whose number is estimated to be somewhere between 160,000 and 200,000, have a vote and the result is expected by 5 September 2022.

Neither contender inspires research community

From their utterances on the campaign trail so far, neither contender for the top job has inspired the British science and research community with much confidence. The focus has been largely driven by the assumed front-runner Truss, who has talked up tax cuts rather than public investment to tackle a cost-of-living crisis.

That’s one reason why the House of Lords report into the UK’s science superpower ambitions is so well timed, according to Diana Beech, a former policy adviser to three UK ministers for universities, science, research and innovation.

She told University World News: “Given the imminent change of prime minister, there’s the very real risk that, once in office, the successful candidate could set new priorities at the expense of old ones – especially if they are serious about creating an image distinct from their predecessor.”

Johnson and his first senior adviser Dominic Cummings made great play about making post-Brexit Britain a science superpower. But so far in the Tory leadership race there has been little mention of research and development (R&D) spending as the means to revitalise the UK economy which, according to Bank of England forecasts, is heading for double-digit inflation and a recession.

Beech, who is now chief executive of London Higher, the representative body for more than 40 universities and higher education colleges in the UK’s capital, told University World News: “Whoever becomes prime minister next month will inherit a swathe of strategies and initiatives, including the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), designed to boost the UK’s R&D capabilities.”

Danger 2.4% ambition could fall by the wayside

“Yet, without a clear plan for science and a continued commitment to invest, there is a danger that the ‘2.4% ambition’ could fall by the wayside.”

So far, the only candidate to allude to the importance of R&D to the UK’s economic recovery and success is former chancellor Rishi Sunak who, in his 2020 budget, announced plans for the fastest and largest increase in R&D spend ever, Beech pointed out.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced Sunak to delay this spending target by two years. “But importantly he did not renege on the ambition completely and also continued to pipe funds into the new ARIA, as well as raise Innovate UK’s annual core budget,” said Beech.

However, with some of science’s biggest advocates having either already left or about to leave government – including the imminent departure of the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance – the task of “keeping UK R&D ringfenced for increased investment during an impending recession has just become a whole lot harder”, Beech told University World News.

She said: “What is needed urgently by whoever becomes prime minister, then, is the swift appointment of a dedicated minister to oversee the UK’s science superpower strategy and make sense of the existing landscape.

“Ideally, this minister will also have responsibility for universities and be located solely in the business department, so that higher education and research can be a key driver of innovation and growth at a time when our economy most needs it.”

Focus on delivery

The House of Lords committee said while it urges the new prime minister “to maintain the positive aspects of science and technology policy”, it wants the focus to shift to delivering the government’s ambition rather than setting up new structures.

This point was hammered home at a briefing to launch the new Lords’ report, when co-author, Professor John Krebs, was reported by The Guardian as saying: “Britain’s plan to become a ‘science and technology superpower’ is so lacking in focus and so full of new organisational structures that the country risks becoming a ‘bureaucracy superpower’ instead.”

The opening summary of the House of Lords’ report was equally hard hitting, declaring: “The government appears to lack an overarching plan for the strategic development of UK science and technology. It recognises the UK cannot be ‘world-leading’ in everything, but it has not identified the areas of science and technology that it wants the country to specialise in, nor has it been clear about how specific its priorities will be.”

UK cannot be a science superpower in isolation

Baroness Brown of Cambridge, chair of the Lords’ Science and Technology Committee, said their inquiry had found a “plethora of strategies” in different areas with little linking them together.

The inquiry heard repeatedly that the UK cannot be a “science and tech superpower” in isolation, but warned that the government’s international science policy has been somewhat incoherent.

“It wants to ‘own’, ‘collaborate’ or ‘access’ technologies with national security implications, but it has not identified the technologies to which each category will apply,” said the inquiry, adding that “the UK’s reputation was damaged by cuts to Official Development Assistance, which meant ongoing projects were abandoned”.

It also said continued uncertainty about UK association with Horizon Europe “risks harming the UK’s reputation further and jeopardising the quality of its science base”, an issue highlighted by University World News last month.

Baroness Brown’s committee heard evidence from a wide range of experts and politicians tasked with turning the ‘science and tech superpower’ ambition into reality, including from George Freeman before he quit as minister for science, research and innovation.

Open talent pathway

It quoted him saying that the government wanted UK science “punching above its weight in terms of global impact” and making sure “we build an open talent pathway for global talent to come here and for our scientists to go around the world and be international”.

It also heard from Kwasi Kwarteng, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, who was among the first to throw weight behind the Liz Truss leadership bid shortly after Johnson said he would quit as prime minister once a successor had been found.

Kwarteng was asked about the four priority areas as defined by the UK’s Office for Science and Technology – the sustainable environment (including net zero); health and life sciences; national security and defence, including space; and a digitally and data driven economy.

He said the priorities in the innovation strategy gave “a clear signal to the market and private investors as to what technologies could be best pursued here” and cautioned against being overly prescriptive.

Ruth Francis, a freelance research communications consultant who spent three-and-a-half years with the Springer Nature Group, told University World News that the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee raised some clear issues about the science superpower goal.

She said: “Despite a lot of reviews in recent years, I'm not sure how much progress is being made towards the 2030 target.

“Many institutions already have challenges with recruitment and retention of the best research talent since Brexit and as we head into a recession with a new prime minister focused on tax and the economy, there is a risk that the ambitious target is scaled back, and funding targets are not met.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. Nic also blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.