House of Lords Debate on the Government's Science and Technology Superpower Ambitions

  • 9 June 2023
  • Business, General, Technology
  • Lord Holmes

I was honoured to take part in a House of Lords debate on progress since our Science and Technology Select Committee report, "Science and technology superpower": more than a slogan? The report summed up our broad-ranging inquiry into the UK science and technology ecosystem and I wrote about it, ‘Delivering a UK Science and Technology Strategy’,  at the time of publication last year.

Our inquiry focused on defining UK priorities as part of a science and technology strategy as well as considering international aspects of the strategy; the organisational structure of UK science, including the roles of UKRI, government departments, Cabinet sub-committees and the Civil Service; the target to boost R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP; and the role of government as an investor in technology companies.

We made several specific recommendations and pointed out the need for clear targets and outcome measures, an understanding of R&D as a long-term endeavour, a complete commitment to international collaboration and working, to crowd in private investment and a laser focus on implementation. Our inquiry also led to a shorter follow-up inquiry into the people and skills in STEM.

There have been many developments since the report was published, including of course, the recent establishment of the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) and the appointment of a Secretary of State for Science, which are both positive moves. The Science and Technology Framework further defines what "science and tech superpower" means, which is some progress.

Despite these positive developments many of the issues raised in our original report remain relevant. We still need those five key pillars of clarity; long term thinking; international collaboration; investment; and implementation.

There was much discussion throughout the debate of the merits, or otherwise, of the phrase “science and technology superpower” but if we put that to one side for a moment, we have, in truth, a real opportunity in the UK for science, technology and innovation. That comes from the great good fortune of the combination of common law, the financial centre in London, the English language, geography, time zone and many other factors. None of that should in any sense take us into a state of believing that we are a superpower, but we should fully appreciate the possibilities arising from those fortunate facts of history and geography, and I will come back to the subject of regulation which is a key opportunity in this space.

But first to the challenges. Several topics were raised repeatedly by colleagues. Importantly, one of those five pillars – an emphasis on the need for international collaboration. Points were made about the benefit of Global Science Partnerships, the loss of research funding when Official Development Assistance was cut, and a chorus of concern about Horizon. The Nurse Review and the Royal Society have both described Horizon membership as essential, and the Minister was questioned repeatedly on this. He replied that as negotiations with European counterparts were ongoing, he could not comment on their content, but the hope was that they would be successful. He went on to say,

“We want to associate with Horizon Europe, but it has to be on fair terms, and if we cannot reach fair and appropriate terms, we will launch Pioneer. Meanwhile we have established the Horizon guarantee to ensure that there is no loss in funding for the UK sector. This will be in place to cover all Horizon Europe calls that close on or before the end of June 2023. We are keeping the scope of the guarantee under review and will ensure that there is no gap in funding flowing to the sector.”

There was a similar level of consensus amongst my colleagues on another issue picked up by the Nurse Review, namely fears that immigration policy and science policy are at odds with one another. Lord Patel reminded us that until recently “freedom of movement of scientists to the UK, not just from the EU but from the wider world, demonstrated that the UK was open to talent, without barriers or high cost to individuals. Our open border to scientific talent is now closed, driven more by our immigration policy than by our ambition to be a global leader in science.”

A desire for greater clarity, long-term thinking and implementation were implicit in many of the points raised around structure and strategy. For example, colleagues wanted to know what happened to the Office for Science and Technology Strategy (OSTS) with the establishment of the DSIT? How often the National Science and Technology Council meet? Where specific sectoral strategies, such as the AI strategy, fit into an overall approach across all sectors? What are the follow up plans for the many strategies (albeit not an industrial strategy, which may be of use)? There are a whole series of reviews, but what is the shelf-life? What are the key performance indicators? What will the practical outcomes be? Lord Rees pointed out that ARIA was supposed to remove bureaucracy, although that might be a challenge as it also has a budget of less than 2% of that of UKRI.

In response, the Minister explained that OSTS has now been integrated into the newly created DSIT and the NSTC will remain a Cabinet committee, with the Prime Minister as chair and that there is a long-standing convention that the frequency, attendance list and minutes of Cabinet and its committees are not made public to protect the principle of collective agreement by Ministers.

The Minister also addressed the question of policy coherence saying,

“Government have set out their priorities through a suite of strategies, including the R&D road map, the UK innovation strategy and the people and culture strategy, which take a strategic or thematic overview to drive delivery of the Government’s priorities.”

As well as plans for driving investment in UK R&D.

“We have increased funding for core Innovate UK programmes which are successful in crowding in private sector leverage, so that they reach £1.1 billion per year by 2024-25. This support business in bringing innovations to market.

I spoke of the positive power that regulation can have to support innovation and technology in this country. We can look recent examples such as what we with the telecoms industry to regulate to enable mobile telephony in this country and what we did even more recently with the fintech sandbox to effectively enable in a regulatory environment so many scale-ups and start-ups to come through. What is the best measure of success for that regulatory sandbox? It has been replicated in well over 50 jurisdictions around the world. That is the positive potential that we have.

One of the recommendations from our original report considered the role of regulation, highlighting that,

“Regulations can make countries more attractive to investors, but companies operating in international markets are concerned about regulatory divergence. The Government should work with industry and the research base to identify the areas, such as artificial intelligence, in which the UK can take a global lead in regulation.”

It is timely indeed that AI should be discussed as an area in which the UK can take a global lead with the Government announcing plans to host the first global summit on Artificial Intelligence. If we can get safe and secure rules, it could enable positive growth in this country and if we are to grapple with and solve the problem of AI, we must do this together, not just the companies, but countries. That sounds pretty positively international to me, and that has to be the right approach.