UK’s plan to become a ‘scientific superpower’ by 2030 is in doubt

How is the UK faring in its ambitions to become a science and technology ‘superpower’ by 2030? According to a report by the Lords Science and Technology Committee, it is currently on track to make the phrase an “empty slogan”.

The peers, led by committee chair Julia King (Baroness Brown of Cambridge), an engineer with a doctorate in fracture mechanics, said there were no “specific and measurable results”, no delivery plan, a short-term outlook and “a frequent policy changes.”

The report [PDF] offers suggested measures to create a more effective science and technology strategy which recognizes “the existing structure of the UK economy and [has] a plan to develop the UK manufacturing base, if that is the intention.”

It comes six months after the government announced its R&D budget of £39.8bn (around $48.2bn). The idea was to deliver on the government’s 2021 innovation strategy, which includes the target to increase total R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

The government is now suggesting bringing in the private sector to meet that 2.4% target, an idea the committee found “unconvincing”.

The committee said: “The government hopes to leverage private sector funding to meet the 2.4 per cent target. It has identified areas for reform, such as public procurement, regulation and pension rules, but these are long-lasting suggestions and the committee was not convinced that this attempt would be more successful.Industry has not been sufficiently involved in the government’s strategy.

King said there was “a plethora of strategies in different areas with little tracking and less connection between them.” She added: “It is often difficult to know who is responsible for individual policies and, above all, delivery.”

She added: “On the international stage, the failure of association with Horizon Europe and recent cuts in official development assistance have damaged the UK’s reputation. The UK cannot be a scientific superpower in isolation; relationships need to be repaired.

On the target, David Willetts (Baron Willetts) thought hitting the target would be “a hell of a sight better than 1.7 or 1.8%, that’s where we are at now.” However, Willetts noted that it needed to match the OECD average in 2017, which had risen to 2.68% by 2020, so the UK “will still be behind comparable countries”.

The report recommended “a step change in the level of engagement with the industry” to reach the metric of 2.4%.

Horizon Europe, funding and scientific career

The committee said it heard testimony from groups including the Turing Institute, the UK Space Agency, the Royal Academy of Engineering, UKCloud and many leading universities, with many saying they were deeply “concerned about the lack of ‘United Kingdom’s association with Horizon Europe after Brexit’. .” The EU’s “key funding program for research and innovation” has a budget of 95.5 billion euros (vs $97.6 billion).

The UK has already received a relatively large share of funding from the project’s predecessor, Horizon 2020, in which it was a “prominent” participant before leaving the EU. “Between 2014 and 2020, UK researchers received over €7 billion (vs $7.5 billion) from the “Horizon 2020″ program… 12.1% of all funds granted, second only to Germany,” the report noted.

Technology efforts and equipment that have received funding from Horizon 2020 include Microsoft Office open source competitor Collabora, ProtonMail parent company Proton Technologies AG, Bristol Unconventional Computing Lab, Li-Fi Group , the local Graphene Research and European Processor Initiative, which is working on a RISC-based chip project for Europe.

While attempts have been made to associate [PDF] with Horizon Europe, and the UK government wants to do this in principle, this has not happened as disagreements over the UK’s relationship with the EU continue to unfold.

This is partly due to the UK’s attempt under Boris Johnson’s administration to abandon post-Brexit trade deals dealing with the fact that EU countries Ireland and the British territory of Ireland of the North share an inner island border – known as the Northern Ireland Protocol. . The protocol agrees to check certain goods at ports in Northern Ireland and that NI adheres to EU rules on product standards.

The protocol is part of the Brexit deal signed by the UK, said the European Union, which called the attempt “illegal and unrealistic”. Currently, the protocol is a hot topic among candidates vying to replace Johnson as UK prime minister – who will be elected by just 160,000 members of the ruling Conservative party by “early September”. Liz Truss, who introduced the bill to overturn the UK government’s post-Brexit deal with the EU because it obstructed the Good Friday deal the UK government reached with leaders of the Republic of Ireland and the constituent region of Northern Ireland, has insisted she will continue with the moves she claims are “lawful”. Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, is in favor of a “negotiated settlement with the EU”.

As for what funding problems mean for science, academics who gave evidence to the committee said it means talent – international scientists working on groundbreaking research at UK universities – does not want to stay in the country because it is seen as limiting both their careers and opportunities for funding and collaboration, so they take their research elsewhere or consider doing so.

The report quotes Professor of Computational Mechanics Chris Pearce, who is Vice-Principal for Research at the University of Glasgow, as saying: Horizon Europe “is one of the most successful international collaborative research funding frameworks, and we we’re basically stuck on this one at the moment.

“Each university will give you examples of projects that are in limbo. We are not included in new projects because we are seen as a risk. It is well documented that a number of Economic Research Council and plans to take their prestigious awards elsewhere.”

The report also explains that the European Research Council said in June that it would end 115 grants offered to UK-based researchers. Nineteen of the researchers have since agreed to go abroad to maintain their funding.

If you’re not a big name, the EU has a lot more funding for beginners and early career researchers. Not have [Horizon funding] for the British is a great success

UK-based researchers cannot access their grants because, under Horizon Europe rules, they must be in an EU or associated country.

An EU-based researcher who spoke to us anonymously said: “It doesn’t affect individual collaboration with specific people on the continent, because you have your money, they have their money – you can collaborate. But when you have to get grants that are based on collaboration, then you can’t access EU collaborations.”

On whether it affects your career, they added: “It depends on what stage you’re in. If you’re not a big name, the EU has a lot more funding for beginners and researchers. at the start of his career. Not having one for the Brits is a big success.”

Plan B and competition

The UK, meanwhile, has said it will spend money currently earmarked for Horizon on a ‘Plan B’, although media reports suggest ‘equivalent funding’ may not be on the way, the minister of Science George Freeman reportedly struggled with the Treasury over funding.

The UK currently does not have a science minister, with the post having been vacant since July 7, when Freeman, along with much of Boris Johnson’s government, announced his resignation in a bid to force the prime minister of the time to resign.

Strategy

“In addition to the obvious appeal of a competitive salary, there must be a navigable immigration policy, a reliable regulatory environment, clear career paths and access to capital, both human and financial,” says The report.

“Framing the talent pool as competition, however, should not lead to a blind approach that misses the key to success in internationally collaborative science. Efforts to attract and retain talent will struggle to succeed without recognizing and addressing this fact. We should also aim to democratize access to and participation in data science and AI technologies, wherever possible, by sharing these advances with the global community.”

The committee said it welcomed “the indication that the government is thinking more strategically about UK science and technology and recognizing that the UK cannot be ‘global’ in everything”.

The report goes on to say that R&D policy has been affected by a short-term view as well as “frequent policy changes, particularly when supposedly long-term strategies are abandoned after a few years.”

The Turing Institute, meanwhile, warned “against any overly competitive framework that could alienate international partners, noting that science is an international and collaborative enterprise.”

Among other recommendations in the report, the committee suggested that the government must “recognize that it cannot replicate the benefits of international collaborations domestically” and said it should work on its collaborations and rebuild its reputation as a “partner reliable”. He also suggested clarifying his role as a “technology investor”, saying it was unclear how the government would overcome “risk aversion in R&D investment”.

The report also welcomed ongoing work on a strategic approach to metrics to measure progress – the Office of Science and Technology Strategy has committed to publishing metrics by the end of 2022.

Cybertech types from the NCC Group, meanwhile, said it might be useful to create an independent, non-executive body to push forward a long-term science and technology strategy and hold the government (regardless of the administration) responsible for progress. ” ®

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