Scientists have welcomed the launch of a 10-point government plan designed to help cement the UK’s place as a global science and technology superpower, but said more funding would be needed to achieve this goal – including securing full association with EU programmes.
The science and technology framework, launched on Monday, is the first major output of the recently created Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. It outlines 10 vital actions necessary to foster the right conditions for industry, innovation and scientific research to deliver highly paid jobs, boost economic growth in cutting-edge industries, and improve people’s lives.
These include identifying, pursuing and achieving strategic advantage in leading industries, boosting private and public investment in research and development, and financing innovative science and technology startups and companies.
Also announced was an additional £370m in funding – including £250m to build on the UK’s leadership in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology.
Michelle Donelan, the science, innovation and technology secretary, said: “Innovation and technology are our future. They hold the keys to everything from raising productivity and wages, to transforming healthcare, reducing energy prices and ultimately creating jobs and economic growth in the UK, providing the financial firepower allowing us to spend more on public services.”
Prof Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, said the announcement was a clear signal that research and innovation sat at the heart of the government’s agenda for productivity and growth, and it was reassuring to see a plan focused on cementing the UK’s place as a science and technology superpower.
Nevertheless, vital for this would be securing access to the EU’s flagship Horizon Europe programme. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, last week signalled that this might be possible under the latest post-Brexit trading deal between the EU and UK – but this is not yet guaranteed. Even then, it could take several years for funding and participation to return to pre-Brexit levels.
“Today’s announcement is welcome – and one of the first steps to turning words into action must be securing full association to the EU funding programmes,” Smith said. “That represents the base of a globally focused UK science sector. The extension of the funding underwrite announced today is a welcome intervention, but it is yet another sticking plaster, when the ultimate goal needs to be speedy association now that the barriers to this have been removed by the EU. We need to see a firm commitment from the prime minister to delivering full association.”
Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of universities, said the £370m of new funding was also far short of £1.6bn in funding that had been earmarked for research collaborations with the European Union, but which the Treasury recently announced it was taking back. The funding has not been spent because of holdups caused by the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol.
“In addition to investment, collaboration is the other vital ingredient for world-class research,” Bradshaw said. “Now the political roadblocks that have held up the UK’s association to Horizon Europe have been removed, the government’s top priority should be to finalise the agreement that was put in place over two years ago.”
Also published on Monday was an independent review of the UK’s research, development and innovation landscape by Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute in London. It concluded that funding, particularly provided by government, was limited, and below that of other competitive nations. The way the UK delivers and supports research is also “not optimal,” it said.
“My review of the research, development and innovation landscape makes a range of recommendations across the whole RDI endeavour, which if adopted together, provides a blueprint for government to make the UK a genuine science superpower,” Nurse said.