Britain’s plan to become a ‘science and technology superpower’ is so lacking in focus and so full of new organizational structures that the country risks becoming a ‘bureaucratic superpower’, an influential counterpart has said.
Professor John Krebs, co-author of a Lords report on the government’s global science and technology ambitions, said that despite laudable rhetoric, there was no clear strategy for how the “superpower” ambition might be realized, and reasons to doubt that it would be. to succeed.
Speaking at a briefing on the report, Science and Technology Superpower: More Than a Slogan?, Lord Krebs said he feared ministers could quietly drop or cut funding commitments needed to meet the target. Meanwhile, the creation of the new National Science and Technology Council and the Science and Technology Strategy Office – in addition to existing bodies such as UK Research and Innovation – threatened to further increase bureaucracy, a- he declared.
“The government’s plan to become a scientific superpower is great, but right now it feels like a marathon with your shoelaces tied together and no signs showing how to get to the finish line,” said Krebs. “There is a danger that the UK will become a bureaucratic superpower rather than a scientific superpower.”
The Cabinet Office said last year that cutting-edge science and technology was ‘essential’ to the country’s prosperity in the digital age, and declared its ambition for the UK to become a ‘science and technology superpower by 2030. The target builds on a commitment to increase research and development funds to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. This requires reversing a trend that has seen funding go from 1.84% of GDP to 1.74% between 1985 and 2019.
Lady Brown, the chair of the Lords committee, said that while the government had “big ambitions” for science and technology, the inquiry found a “plethora of strategies” in different areas with little connection between them. During this time, many official bodies had ill-defined or overlapping responsibilities, and it was often unclear who was responsible for what.
More than a dozen research and innovation-related strategies and initiatives were launched in the life sciences alone between 2017 and 2021, according to the survey, leading to what Krebs called a “confusing landscape” and suspicions that the government could be better at writing new strategies. than deliver them.
The report urges the government to be specific about what it wants to achieve and to publish a clear implementation plan with measurable targets. He calls for closer collaboration with business to achieve the 2.4% of GDP target and for the urgent appointment of a new science minister at cabinet level. The position has been vacant since George Freeman resigned early last month.
Peers continue to criticize the UK’s approach to international science collaborations, with massive cuts to overseas aid coming out of nowhere and a failure to join the EU’s £80billion Horizon Europe scheme sterling due to a Brexit row in Northern Ireland. “Cut yourself off from the larger international collaborative agenda is a remarkably inept thing to do,” Krebs said. The UK got far more money from the previous Horizon program than it invested.
Conservative leadership candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak had been “virtually silent” on science and technology, Krebs said, raising further doubts about the government’s commitment to the superpower goal. “This report, together with its findings and recommendations, should be on the desk of the next prime minister as soon as he takes office,” he said. “What worries me – although it’s not something the committee looked at – is that with the focus on lowering taxes, some of these commitments to increase science spending could be quietly abandoned or reduced.”