Guest Editorial

In the last issue of FST Journal, Science Minister George Freeman MP set out the Government’s approach to UK science in a global marketplace and outlined his own objectives in this area as a Minister. Here, Chi Onwurah MP offers a critique of current policy from an Opposition viewpoint.


Science and technology at the heart of a successful economy

Chi Onwurah

Chi Onwurah is the Shadow Minister for Science, Research and Innovation and the MP for Newcastle Central, first elected in 2010. She is a chartered engineer with a degree in Electrical Engineering from Imperial College and an MBA from the University of Manchester. Before she entered parliament, she worked as a telecommunications engineer in the UK, France, US, Nigeria and Denmark before becoming head of Telecoms Technology for Ofcom. She has been on the Labour frontbench since 2010, focussing on aspects of science and technology policy. She is a former trustee and current Council member of the Foundation.

I believe in science for science’s sake. It is part of our innate humanity to seek to push forward the boundaries of knowledge. Here in the UK we have a fantastic, world-leading scientific tradition. From Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking, Ada Lovelace to Rosalind Franklin and, of course, Newcastle-born Peter Higgs – discoverer of the Higgs boson.

The Covid-19 pandemic made clear the value and strength of British science, with a vaccine that is used across the world created in labs in Oxford. Having worked in tech for 20 years as a Chartered Electrical Engineer, I am particularly proud that the UK is at the cutting edge of so many disciplines which are shaping our economy and our wellbeing – life sciences, AI and quantum computing, to name a few.

Mission critical

Our current Government may try to talk a good game on science. We have all heard the soundbites ‘science superpower’, science is ‘the great liberator’, the UK is ‘world-beating’ on science. Yet all too often the reality on the ground for scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs and those whose wellbeing depends on scientific breakthroughs is that the Government is not serious about science: whether that be supporting UK science to grow and prosper, or driving policy by evidence and reason.

Science, research and development are by their very nature long term endeavours: they require vision and a long-term plan. This Government, however, struggles to think beyond next week. It stumbles from crisis to crisis, scandal to scandal, and this undermines the science sector.

Just look at the record. We are on our fifth change of Science Minister in less than three years – never mind a long-term plan for science, it would be nice to have a long-term Minister. Each Minister introduces their pet projects, leaves, and then another comes in to try and reinvent the wheel. We have had an ‘Innovation strategy’, an ‘R&D roadmap’, a ‘science plan’, an ‘Office for Science and Technology Strategy,’ ‘grand challenges’, ‘industrial strategies’, ‘sector deals’, ‘accelerators’, ‘cluster innovation accelerators’ the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) and two re-organisations of UKRI. A ‘science superpower’ requires purpose, power, resources and leadership. British science is being badly let down on each count.

The Government’s failure on science hurts not just the science community but our wider economy. Science and technology are the engine of a high skills, high wage, high productivity economy. We need innovation to drive the technologies and production processes of the future and deliver a just transition to a green economy. We need major investment now, all across the country, to turn the overlapping challenges of rising global temperatures, an ageing population and automation into opportunities for all in this United Kingdom.

Under the Conservatives, we have had over a decade of failure on innovation, discovery, and growth. That British science has continued to succeed is a testament to our world-beating scientists and science infrastructure – but imagine how much further forward we could have been with competent, consistent Government. For example, the UK has lost a significant amount of its world-leading pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities – vital for drug and medicine development – and the Government has not taken the steps to retain or rebuild it, even after Covid.

There is also a significant geographical inequality of science and research spending. The North receives less than half of the life science investment per head that the South of England gets – despite having great teaching hospitals and significant health inequalities. Investment by Government totals just £22 per person in the North, two fifths of the £56 per person invested in the South of England. In the Midlands, it is as low as £16.

The Government’s failure on science hurts not just the science community but our wider economy. Science and technology are the engine of a high skills, high wage, high productivity economy.

As the Campaign for Science and Engineering said, the UK’s R&D strategy is all £s and no people. CaSE highlights underinvestment, unchallenged stereotypes and uninspiring courses which result in many young people being put off STEM subjects from an early age, contributing to a skills gap in the very skills we need most. Young people everywhere are ambitious for their futures, and employers want workers with technology and digital skills. The Government has consistently failed to ensure school-leavers have these.

Key to becoming a science superpower will be developing the UK’s capacity to turn ideas and invention into commercial usage and protecting key industries and assets from foreign hostile takeovers.

Why the Government is failing

The Government is distracted by scandals and sleaze of its own making, which as well as impacting confidence are a major barrier to the job of governing. More fundamentally, on science they seem intent on making the same ideological mistakes as the Thatcher government. That treated scientists as individual entrepreneurs rather than part of communities, and science as a magical springing-up of knowledge rather than part of an active, deliberate search for understanding. 

It has compounded this by hampering the international, collaborative links that science relies upon. We still have no answer to what will happen with future involvement in Horizon, working with scientists and individuals in the EU. Last year, the Government also wilfully sabotaged collaborative research across the world by its disastrous cut to Official Development Assistance (ODA).

It is trying to cover these deeper problems with spin. In the Levelling Up paper, for example, they have taken the language (but not the insights) of the economist Marianna Mazzucato, by setting out a series of ‘missions’ which include R&D. The problem here is that these missions, like the missions in the ARIA programme, are both unambitious and entirely dependent on the current Minister’s imagination – the Levelling Up Bill makes clear they can be changed on a Ministerial whim. George Freeman may believe in science but his Government is ideologically opposed to active government, specifically the very idea that a Government can make strategic interventions for the public good. Such interventions are what we need to produce the ideal ecosystem for science in the UK.

This is why innovation is at the heart of Labour’s industrial strategy. R&D spending is currently just 1.7% of GDP, the lowest in the G7. The Government has committed to reaching 2.4% which is about average. Labour believes Britain is a science leader and, what is more, our future depends on being an innovation nation. That is why we have committed to raising R&D spend to 3% of GDP. However, delivering an innovation nation takes more than money, it requires a mindset change, whereby science becomes part of our national DNA – for everyone, not just the lucky few – and becomes integral to the public good.

This is a no-brainer for our economy – the Campaign for Science and Engineering found that for every £1 invested by the Government on research and development, we get back 20p-30p each and every year. Research from Kings College London and Brunel University also showed that for every £1 invested in medical research, we get back 25p to the economy each and every year1. Labour wants to see investment in science across the whole of the UK, so that every region and nation can thrive.

We also need to tackle the shortfall of STEM workers and Labour would help encourage women and those from under-represented backgrounds into STEM. Widening access to opportunities in science is not just the right thing to do for the individuals; tapping into this talent will strengthen the sector by diversifying decision-making.

Key to becoming a science superpower will be developing the UK’s capacity to turn ideas and invention into commercial usage. The passage of the National Security and Investments Bill showed the Government slowly starting to take action on an issue we have been calling for: protecting key industries and assets from foreign hostile takeovers. It also showed the Government’s limited thinking: the Bill contains little in the way of protections for startups and no mechanism for supporting a business that is prohibited from being sold off.

Indeed, the Government’s flagship programme for innovation, ARIA, shows that the Government is not doing anywhere near enough to help Britain become a science superpower. ARIA should have been an opportunity to direct science and research towards key missions, like preventing future pandemics and tackling climate change, but instead it will have no mission and no proper oversight.

Labour and the Government are agreed on the need for greater support for UK science, but only Labour has the vision to make that a reality more than a soundbite. Labour wants to make the UK into an innovation nation, with science and research at the heart of tackling key societal challenges such as climate change, an ageing population and emerging technologies. Doing so will allow us to tackle regional inequality and provide good quality jobs for people from all backgrounds across the country. We cannot afford not to.