1. Committee findings and recommendations

The government has said that it intends to make the UK a “science and technology superpower” by 2030. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee conducted an inquiry into the government’s proposals in support of this ambition, publishing its report on 4 August 2022.

In its findings, the committee welcomed the government’s ambitious targets for science and technology, such as the target to spend 2.4% of UK GDP on research and development (R&D) by 2027. The committee suggested that “a clear and consistent science and technology policy has the potential to unlock significant benefits for the UK”.

The report added that “many of the pieces are in place to meet the government’s ambitions”, for example that public investment in R&D is due to rise to £20bn by 2024/25. The committee also noted that there was already an “effective network” of chief scientific advisors across government departments. It noted that a cabinet sub-committee, the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), and a secretariat, the Office for Science and Technology Strategy (OSTS), had also recently been established to “direct the government’s strategic approach to science and technology”.

However, the committee said there were “few details” about how the government’s plans would be delivered. It noted that there had been a “profusion of sectoral strategies” in areas such as artificial intelligence and life sciences. However, it said there was “little sense of how they fit into an overall plan”. The committee said that “unclear targets, and poor communication, jeopardise the achievement of the government’s ambitions”.

The committee argued that the government’s focus for science and technology policy should shift to delivery, with a “laser focus on implementation” to ensure that its science and tech superpower ambition did not become an empty slogan.

To this end, the committee made several recommendations, including:

  • The government should set out what it wants to achieve in each of the broad areas of science and technology it has identified, with a clear implementation plan including measurable targets and key outcomes in priority areas, and an explanation of how they will be delivered. The government should consolidate existing sector-specific strategies into that implementation plan.
  • Any cross-government science strategy must recognise the importance of international collaborations and steps must be taken to rebuild the UK’s reputation as a partner.
  • The NSTC should meet regularly and frequently, and the OSTS should publish the outcomes of the council’s decisions.
  • The remits of the NSTC and OSTS should be clarified, including how they interact with existing government bodies and the areas of cross-departmental work that they are responsible for.
  • Accountability for the delivery of the government’s overall science and technology strategy should sit with the minister responsible for science and technology, which should be a cabinet-level position.
  • The role and accountabilities of UK Research and Innovation and its board must be clarified, ensuring the organisation is sufficiently and flexibly resourced, and well connected across government.
  • The government should go beyond an abstract percentage of GDP target for R&D and explain what benefits it wants to achieve with the additional funding.
  • The role that public procurement will play in a science and technology strategy should be clarified, with the government setting out which technologies, or areas of technology, it will support through public procurement.
  • The government should explain how it will address any cultural risk aversion in the UK and set out its own approach to risk when it comes to public money.
  • The government should work with stakeholders to identify how tax credits, pension fund rules and public procurement can be adapted to support innovation and stimulate business research and development investment.

2. Government response to the committee

The government published its response to the committee’s report on 6 March 2023.

The response highlighted the creation of the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) in February 2023, something which—alongside the foundation of the NSTC—the government said had brought a “new strategic focus”. Ministers said that this move had been “widely welcomed by the science and technology community”, adding that the government hoped the committee would also view it as “a positive announcement in relation to the issues the committee rightly highlighted in its report”.

The government noted that the new department will focus on positioning the UK at the “forefront” of global scientific and technological advancement, adding that:

DSIT consolidates the relevant parts of the former Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the former Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and brings together the five technologies of tomorrow under one department for the first time—quantum, AI, engineering biology, semiconductors, future telecoms, together with life sciences, space and green technologies.

The government said the NSTC—which has recently been re-established as a cabinet committee chaired by the prime minister, rather than the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—will help the government “align UK capabilities behind science and technology advantage”. The government’s response also noted that the OSTS had been integrated into the newly created DSIT, with its function to be determined by DSIT’s secretary of state.

On the issue of making the activities of the NSTC public, however, the government said that it was a “long-established precedent” that information about the discussions held in cabinet and its committees is “not normally shared publicly”. It said that “cabinet committees are not the only means for making progress on a policy issue” and that “much of the policy work takes place across government departments outside of the committee”.

The government responded to the committee’s concern about the “proliferation of disparate strategies” in science and innovation by suggesting that its sector-specific strategies—such as the ‘National space strategy’, the ‘Life sciences vision’, the ‘National AI strategy’, the ‘National cyber strategy 2022’ and the ‘National quantum strategy’—have a “consistent strategic focus” and detail the specific action that is necessary to tackle barriers to innovation in each sector. Furthermore, the government said that its “sector-specific initiatives sit within a wider strategic framework”, citing the 2020 ‘UK research and development roadmap’, the 2021 strategy ‘Build back better: Our plan for growth’, and the new ‘UK science and technology framework’, which is discussed in greater detail below. The government said these documents set out the importance of the R&D ecosystem and recognise the “fundamental principle that innovation drives economic growth”, the realisation of which is “essential for the UK’s future prosperity”. It added that “clear implementation and delivery plans” will be established for specific areas of science and technology.

In response to concerns about a potential “boom-and-bust cycle” in R&D investment, the government said that it had always been consistent in its support for such funding “despite the fiscal challenges”. With respect to the target for R&D spending to reach 2.4% of GDP, the government noted that ONS methodological improvements suggest that this target may have already been surpassed, with R&D spending having previously been underestimated. It noted that DSIT was considering the implications of this, but that “a stronger baseline does not change the underlying rationale for growing economy-wide investment in R&D”.

On procurement, the government agreed with the committee that it “presents a significant opportunity to drive the development and deployment of new technologies”. It noted that the Procurement Bill, currently going through Parliament, includes a new “competitive flexible procedure” which would support the “procurement of innovative solutions by public sector buyers”. The government also noted that procurement offered an opportunity for the government to “allocate funding to provide support for the early adoption of defined areas of technological priority”.

With respect to the issues associated with “cultural risk aversion”, the government said that it “recognised that failed ventures are an inevitable part of a healthy R&D ecosystem”. It noted that the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) had been created to support high-risk research, with £800mn allocated to it by 2025/26. In particular, ministers said that ARIA had been explicitly enabled to give particular weighting to the value created by research projects which “have a high-risk of failure but opportunity for high returns”.

The government also highlighted its ongoing review of R&D tax reliefs. It noted that reforms to such reliefs had been announced in the autumn statement 2022 to “ensure taxpayer’s money is spent as effectively as possible, improve the competitiveness of the R&D expenditure credit (RDEC) scheme, and take a step towards a simplified, single RDEC-like scheme for all”. The government said that it would consult on the design of a single scheme and “work with industry to understand whether further support is necessary for R&D intensive SMEs”.

3. Recent developments

3.1 New ‘UK science and technology framework’

On the same date the government published its response to the committee’s report, 6 March 2023, it also published its ‘UK science and technology framework’. Noting that it was the first major piece of work from the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, ministers contended that the framework “will challenge every part of government to better put the UK at the forefront of global science and technology this decade through 10 key actions—creating a coordinated cross-government approach”.

It set out those 10 actions as follows:

  • identifying, pursuing and achieving strategic advantage in the technologies that are most critical to achieving UK objectives
  • showcasing the UK’s S&T strengths and ambitions at home and abroad to attract talent, investment and boost our global influence
  • boosting private and public investment in research and development for economic growth and better productivity
  • building on the UK’s already enviable talent and skills base
  • financing innovative science and technology start-ups and companies
  • capitalising on the UK government’s buying power to boost innovation and growth through public sector procurement
  • shaping the global science and tech landscape through strategic international engagement, diplomacy and partnerships
  • ensuring researchers have access to the best physical and digital infrastructure for R&D that attracts talent, investment and discoveries
  • leveraging post-Brexit freedoms to create world-leading pro-innovation regulation and influence global technical standards
  • creating a pro-innovation culture throughout the UK’s public sector to improve the way our public services run

To support these aims, the framework contains a series of outcomes to be achieved by 2030 in each area, and the government states a “clear action plan” will be in place for each strand of the framework by summer 2023, with delivery overseen by the NSTC.

Ministers have said that the delivery of this new framework will begin “immediately” with an initial raft of projects, worth around £500mn in new and existing funding, which will help “ensure the UK has the skills and infrastructure to take a global lead in game-changing technologies”.

During debate on the new framework in the House of Commons on 7 March 2023, Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Chi Onwurah said that Labour welcomed the proposals. However, she questioned whether the government would be able to realise its ambitions, or whether the strategy would prove to be a “wish list” which would not be subsequently delivered.

3.2 The Nurse review

Also published on 6 March 2023 was Sir Paul Nurse’s ‘Independent review of the UK’s research, development and innovation organisational landscape’, known as the Nurse review.

The Nurse review characterised the UK’s research, development and innovation landscape as consisting of a patchwork of research-performing organisations and research funders. It said this was the consequence of “changing, sometimes short-term, public policy priorities and initiatives, and varied approaches to public funding of research” over many years. The review suggests that further piecemeal change would not be enough to achieve the government’s ambitions.

As a result, the Nurse review provided an integrated set of recommendations which it said formed “a blueprint which would catalyse evolutionary changes across the entire landscape that in total would generate a revolution in how research, development and innovation takes place in the UK”. These included several short-term measures that could be enacted quickly and deliver rapid returns, such as association with the “highly respected” Horizon Europe programme. Others included relaunching specific research institutes, such as the Rosalind Franklin Institute and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, with better funding and clear independence. The Nurse review also said pilot programmes in universities could offer end-to-end funding in areas of research excellence, with pilot projects to test how best to link universities in disadvantaged areas to their local communities.

The review suggested that the government had a key role in delivering change as it will require increased investment, reduced policy volatility and “a long-lasting, consistent, systematic approach to policy development and safeguarding of the research, development and innovation landscape”.

4. Read more

Cover image by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash.