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How the UK can revive its science and technology ‘superpower’ ambitions


British prime ministers have often placed science and technology at the centre of their vision. In 1963, Harold Wilson declared that a “new Britain” could only emerge from the “white heat” of a scientific revolution. More recently, Theresa May claimed in 2018 that the UK was “in pole position” to reap the benefits of “a new technological age”. And soon after taking power, Boris Johnson spoke of his aims to cement the UK’s status as a “global science and technology superpower”.

But a report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee warned this month that this ambition is in danger of becoming “an empty slogan”, highlighting low investment in innovation and neglect of the UK’s network of international research partners.

Experts told Tech Monitor that to realise the country’s ambition to become a true science and technology superpower, the next prime minister must prioritise R&D spending and begin to repair the UK’s research partnerships with countries around the globe.

‘The only way you can be a strong scientific nation in the 21st century is through collaboration and networks.’ (Photo by SolStock/iStock)

Funding the UK’s science and technology superpower goal

One of the Lords Committee’s principal sources of concern is the UK’s below-average investment in R&D, or “research intensity”. In recent years, the UK has spent between 1.53% to 1.74% of GDP on R&D, according to OECD data, substantially below the OECD average of 2.68%.

Five years ago, the UK government announced plans to increase the UK’s research intensity to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 and a longer-term target of 3%. The report’s authors questioned whether the 2.4% target, which would still leave the UK behind its peers, is achievable, especially in light of the uncertain economic horizon.

Private sector R&D investment in the UK has, in particular, fallen behind countries such as France, Germany, South Korea, and Japan. According to the Royal Academy of Engineering, the UK’s private sector spends just 0.91% of GDP on R&D, compared to 1.9% in Germany, for example.

“Right now, we know that the amount businesses spend on R&D as a percentage of GDP is less than half the OECD average and that is despite us spending more on tax reliefs than almost every other country,” then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak admitted in this year’s Spring Statement. “Something is not working.”

Given current levels of inflation and the cost of living crisis, it is “unclear whether it is realistic to expect private sector investment, which has been relatively flat for years,” to increase, the Lords Committee warned.

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Other experts on research policy, including Professor James Wilsdon from the University of Sheffield, have also expressed their concerns on how spending on science and technology in the UK might be affected by the looming recession and proposed tax cuts by leadership hopefuls in the race to be the next prime minister of the country. 

Martin Smith, head of the policy lab at the Wellcome Trust echoes these concerns. “I am worried that the current spending plans could be ripped out by the new PM and the cycle will start again and again, so it all depends on the level of political priority that’s going to be given to the science and technology agenda,” he says.

“I’ll have more confidence if the new prime minister matches the rhetoric that Boris Johnson was using but they don’t, the science community will have to go back into the mode of trying to fight against cuts as opposed to pushing for bigger increases, which is the complete antithesis of a science superpower agenda.”

Repairing collaboration networks

So far, the debate on science and technology among the Tory leadership candidates has been limited to the need for an aggressive stance on Chinese tech companies. Foreign secretary Liz Truss is currently the front-runner, and some are worried science and technology issues may take a backseat to other priorities if she wins the race.

“Rishi Sunak has obviously presented himself as a candidate in touch with tech and Silicon Valley,” says Wilsdon. “But there’s quite a legitimate concern that if Liz Truss becomes the next prime minister, she and those around her won’t necessarily have the same degree of interest in science and technology.”

An increase in R&D investment must be accompanied by a renewed focus on building international research partnerships, experts warn, calling for a greater emphasis on repairing the country’s research partnerships with its neighbours. The Lords report argues that cuts to the Official Development Assistance programme which nurtures scientific research in developing countries and the ongoing impasse with Horizon Europe have “severely undermined the aspiration to be a science and tech superpower”.

“Our superpower status comes from the nature of our research networks,” says Wilsdon. “The only way you can be a strong scientific nation in the 21st century is through collaboration and networks.”

Smith agrees. “Science isn’t done anymore by one person having a light bulb moment and producing a single author paper,” he says. “There are fields of research where you have papers with 100 authors on them because they’re all working together in a distributed way around the globe, so any retreat into isolation is going to leave us out of the loop on the biggest scientific challenges ahead.”

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