Guest Editorial

The UK is competing in a global marketplace. To be successful, Global Britain needs to make the most of all of its opportunities.


Seizing the moment – together

George Freeman

George Freeman MP was appointed Minister for Science, Research and Innovation in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on 17 September 2021. He has held several ministerial roles including Minister of State at the Department for Transport and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Life Sciences at BEIS and the Department of Health. He was elected Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010. Before being elected to Parliament, George Freeman had a 15-year career across the life sciences sector.

It is William Gibson who is widely credited with saying: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” No quote better captures for me the central challenge facing the UK as we emerge from the political, economic and public health turbulence of the past few years. We are emerging with a more resilient and sustainable economic model designed to put science, research and innovation at the heart of our post-Brexit vision for Global Britain’s role in the world.

The pandemic has illustrated both the huge global opportunities for the UK as a scientific superpower (when we embrace a more agile and innovative mindset) and the huge structural challenges and vulnerabilities we carry after a 40-year shift to a post-industrial service economy.

While we are home to some of the most ground-breaking science, research, technology, engineering and innovation in the world, we are also held back by unsustainable overconcentration in a few ‘hot’ areas, while stubborn post-industrial decline and deprivation is holding back so many people and places across the UK.

Similarly, access to the possibilities of the future is even less evenly distributed. As the pandemic highlighted, while many countries have high rates of vaccination and vaccines to spare, many poorer nations have neither the vaccine supply chain nor basic public health systems to distribute them.

Making access to the opportunities created by science, technology and innovation more evenly distributed is fundamental to global sustainability, and also to the UK being able to enjoy a new cycle of sustainable prosperity.

As last year’s Integrated Review made clear, the UK has undeniable, unrealised potential to commercialise the extraordinary R&D-intensive technologies emerging from our science base. To seize these opportunities we need to take a more active approach to building and sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology.

By properly moving from being a service economy (with world class science in silos and sporadic innovation which all too often ends up overseas) to a genuine ‘innovation economy’ which puts our world class science and innovation at the very heart of our domestic and global economic model and world vision, I have no doubt we have the opportunity to unlock a new era of prosperity. 

The pace of science and innovation is creating new opportunities for whole new industries in ever shorter technology cycles. By moving fast to seize the opportunity of post-Brexit regulatory, procurement and trading freedoms, the UK could become a global R&D testbed for the technologies the globe is crying out for: from drought-resistant crops to dissolvable plastic, fusion energy to hydrogen shipping, biofuels to bioengineered carbon sequestration, as well as vaccines against the diseases which still hold us all back.

Becoming the R&D powerhouse for sustainable global development – the best place in the world to discover, develop, commercialise, regulate, finance and export these technologies – is within our grasp. We need to seize it.

This is the central idea which drives the new UK approach to Science, Research & Innovation – captured in the two objectives I have set out as the keys to success:

1. Becoming a science superpower: properly harnessing the UK’s deep science leadership for global good by:

  • continuing to invest in world-class discovery science;
  • making UKRI the world’s most agile, multidisciplinary, creative and impactful research agency;
  • investing in new global talent career paths and Fellowships;
  • deepening bilateral and multilateral R&D collaborations;
  • attracting much more significant global industrial R&D to the UK;
  • explicitly harnessing UK science to help tackle global grand challenges;
  • harnessing UK science leadership for geopolitical influence.

By seizing the opportunity of post-Brexit regulatory, procurement and trading freedoms, the UK could become a global R&D testbed.  
With the necessary pace, agility and a focus on the opportunities, we can breathe life into many more scientific and technological breakthroughs.

2. Being an ‘innovation nation’ by properly connecting our deep science expertise much better to our domestic economy through:

  • better industry/academic engagement;
  • new career paths for a generation of entrepreneurial innovator scientists;
  • stronger support for the transformational technologies of tomorrow and for high growth sectors;
  • simpler access to business and industry grants;
  • support for fastest-growing SMEs with stronger access to scale-up finance;
  • stronger development of clusters around the whole of the UK.

This twin-driver approach – enhanced global discovery science alongside a more dynamic domestic innovation economy – is designed to help ensure we seize the opportunity described.

To succeed, we have to both lead in the discovery of breakthroughs like genomics and robotics and also build the pathways to successful proof-of-concept, licensing, financing and global commercialisation.

This is the model we are adopting and which I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to lead by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Business Secretary.

 This pandemic has emphasised the extraordinary advances that can be made at scale and at speed. With the necessary pace, agility and a focus on the opportunities, I am confident we can breathe life into many more scientific and techno- logical breakthroughs. These will transform the lives of people across the UK and the world, restoring the UK’s global role as both an ‘innovation nation’ and a science superpower.

The history of British science speaks for itself – from Newton to Darwin, Ada Lovelace to Tim Berners-Lee, Alexander Fleming to Stephen Hawking and Sarah Gilbert. We are undeniably a global science superpower. It is in our national DNA.

Re-orientating our economy, politics and society to harness this more strategically requires a major ‘rewiring’ of the way Government works. For the first time since the ‘White Heat of Technology’ was referenced by Harold Wilson in the 1960s, we are gripping it. That is why we have:

  • established the new National Science & Technology Council (NSTC), supported by the new Office for Science & Technology Strategy in the Cabinet Office;
  • made the historic funding commitment to drive economy-wide investment to 2.4% of GDP in 2027, with over £5 billion of additional annual investment per year by 2024-25 (raising HMG R&D spending by 30% to £22 billion by 2026-27);
  • made our commitment to R&D in the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper to distribute opportunity evenly, with BEIS committing to invest at least 55% of its domestic R&D funding outside the Greater South East by 2024-25;
  • committed to £100 million of Government funding to pilot Cluster ‘Innovation Accelerators’ – widening the benefits of R&D opportunities for wider societal benefit in three of our great clusters: Greater Manchester (materials science); the West Midlands (robotics, advanced manufacturing and battery technology); and the Glasgow City-Region (advanced, satellite and manufacturing). My aim is that these will learn from the Stanford-Silicon Valley and MIT-Greater Boston models of combining excellent research, industrial and new skills with career opportunities in a city-region;
  • published the Innovation Strategy (see page 6), a serious long-term plan for how we put innovation at the heart of “building back better” by mainstreaming the lessons learned from the pandemic and our world-leading vaccine rollout (faster than anywhere in Europe thanks to a powerful combination of our top universities, the NHS and the freedom to operate outside of EU bureaucracy);
  • set out our commitment, as part of the Innovation Strategy, to support the ‘Seven Tech Families’ in which the UK has the greatest technological strengths and potential. We know that innovations like the smartphone would never had become ubiquitous were it not for the right combination of technologies – microprocessors, touchscreens and GPS for instance – being sufficiently developed in combination. That is why it is so important that we identify the technology families and clusters with the greatest potential to drive transformational innovation: from advanced materials to bioinformatics and bioengineering, to quantum technologies, AI, robotics and machine learning. These are the technologies that offer the potential to develop self-healing materials, advanced diagnostics and disease cures, that enable us to harness cells as nanotechnology factories, create a new generation of hydrogen fuels, dissolvable plastics, solar power in space, carbon sequestration and clean nuclear fusion energy generators. Our challenge will be to build on the UK’s existing strengths in these emerging fields, and to apply them in business, healthcare and both existing & emerging industries; 
  • launched the Nurse, Tickell and Grant Reviews of UKRI and our research ecosystem to strip back the red tape from existing research ecosystems, increase the agility of funding decisions, create new career paths for a new generation of scientists, innovators & entrepreneurs and make the UK once again the most attractive place for the world’s top talent to build exciting careers;
  • launched the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), our new UK independent discovery science and innovation agency, supported by £800 million in funding, to empower exceptional scientists to focus on high-risk, high reward research programmes at the frontier of discovery and invention, without bureaucratic restriction, on the US model of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency: the research engine behind early iterations of GPS, Apple’s SIRI, and the internet. The appointment of Dr Peter Highnam, Deputy Director of DARPA, as ARIA’s new CEO is a major validation of the UK ARIA model;
  • restated our commitment to formalise our association with the Horizon Europe programme (despite the very disappointing delay of now 14 months from the EU); launched a funding guarantee for UK ‘in-flight’ projects while making clear that alongside Horizon we intend to embrace deeper bilateral and multilateral global science, technology and innovation collaborations. This is why I am visiting Switzerland, Israel and the Pacific so quickly to negotiate bilateral research and innovation MoUs.

These are just some of the significant steps we are taking to reform and refine our research infrastructure, funding processes and ecosystem in order to seize the opportunity of reorienting the UK as a global science, technology and innovation superpower.

Yet we have to do something else: we must recognise we are in a competitive global race for talent and investment, listen to the research and innovation community in order to be vigilant and honest about where our global USP really lies, and where our support is likely to yield the greatest impact. In particular, we need to listen to the next generation – scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs – in whose hands our future success lies.

It is an exciting moment for UK science, technology and innovation. We need to seize it – together.