Unfocused UK science and technology strategy risks “science superpower” becoming an empty slogan
4 August 2022
The Committee’s report on a UK science and technology strategy concludes that there is an urgent need to develop an implementation plan for the Government’s welcome science and technology ambitions, or they risk becoming empty slogans.
- Report: “Science and technology superpower”: more than a slogan? (PDF)
- Report: “Science and technology superpower”: more than a slogan? (HTML)
- Inquiry: Delivering a UK science and technology strategy
- Science and Technology Committee
The Government has significant and welcome ambitions for, and commitments to, science and technology that recognise their importance to the societal health and economic prosperity of the UK. These include: the aim to become a “science and tech superpower” by 2030, the target to boost spending on R&D to 2.4% of GDP (the 2017 average for OECD countries) by 2027; and a significant increase in public funding for R&D. The Committee also welcomes the establishment of the subcommittee of cabinet, the National Science and Technology Council, as a signal of an increased focus on science and technology.
However, the Committee was concerned that the potential of UK science and technology to contribute to a high-tech, high-growth economy may not be fulfilled, due to the lack of an implementation plan. The next administration must maintain the commitment to R&D funding and the focus on science and technology– it will be fundamental to economic growth and improving public services.
Science policy has been let down by short-termism and a proliferation of disparate strategies without an overarching vision. There are a large number of government bodies with unclear remits and interactions, which means that it is often unclear who owns a specific policy. At the time of writing, there was no science minister, which further blurs lines of accountability.
Internationally, the Government’s own-collaborate-access framework was meant to clarify policy on strategic areas of technology, but the Committee thought it was poorly understood and inconsistently applied. The failure to associate with Horizon Europe and cuts to Official Development Assistance have damaged the UK’s reputation as a collaborative partner, and risk damaging its science base.
The Government hopes to leverage private sector funding to reach the 2.4% target. It has identified areas for reform, such as public procurement, regulations, and pension rules, but these are perennial suggestions and the Committee was unconvinced that this attempt would more successful. Industry has been insufficiently engaged with the Government’s strategy.
“The Government has high ambitions for science and technology, which the Committee welcomes. Science and technology are crucial to the UK’s development and economic prosperity. Even with significantly lower spending than comparable countries, the UK’s excellent science base punches above its weight and can provide the tools to tackle major challenges like net zero.
“But science policy has been far from perfect. R&D is a long-term endeavour which requires sustained focus and an implementation plan. But we found a plethora of strategies in different areas with little follow-through and less linking them together. There are numerous bodies and organisations with unclear or apparently overlapping responsibilities, and more are being added in the form of the National Science and Technology Council and the Office for Science and Technology Strategy. It is often unclear who is accountable for individual policies, and critically, for delivery.
“The Government has suggested areas of reform to increase private sector investment in R&D such as public procurement for innovation, regulatory reform, and R&D tax credits. But these areas are perennial suggestions. New ideas - and specific details – developed with business are needed if this time the outcomes are to be different.
“On the international stage, the failure to associate to Horizon Europe, and recent cuts to Official Development] Assistance, have damaged the UK’s reputation. The UK cannot be a science superpower in isolation; relationships must be repaired.
“UK science and technology remains strong and respected around the world, but they will not deliver their full potential for the UK with an inconsistent and unclear science policy from Government. A new administration must retain the ambition for science and technology and develop a clear plan for delivery.”
The Government should better define its science and technology strategy. It needs to set out what it wants to achieve in its priority areas, consolidating existing strategies. It should have measurable targets with a clear implementation plan. Strategies should be sustained for the long term.
The Government should explain what the “own-collaborate-access” framework means for key areas of technology and how it will be applied.
It needs to repair international relationships following the ongoing lack of association with Horizon Europe and cuts to Official Development Assistance.
The Government should set out its specific reforms to areas such as public procurement, regulations and R&D tax credits, explaining how they will support innovation. Individual taskforces in each area of reform should be accountable for these reforms, working across government, and providing a single point of contact for feedback from industry.