Strategic Advantage


Creating a balance between priorities

James Wilsdon

Professor James Wilsdon FAcSS is Digital Science Professor of Research Policy at the University of Sheffield and Director of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI) - an international consortium of research funders, academics and technologists with a mission to accelerate transformational and translational research on research systems, cultures and decision-making. RoRI’s consortium now includes 20 research funders from 15 countries, who between them invest over US$ 23bn each year in research and innovation.


  • Greater clarity is needed about how different parts of the Science, Technology and Innovation spheres interact with each other
  • A balance needs to be struck between central coordination of research and a more distributed approach
  • The pendulum seems to be swinging from collaboration to competition
  • These debates are not new, they were being discussed when the Rothschild report was published half a century ago
  • The tension between different priorities in research will continue.

The addition of the OSTS and NSTC to the UK’s science and technology system is a familiar dynamic in creating strong central Government structures, and then moving responsibilities elsewhere. Indeed, there are strong echoes of debates around the Rothschild report more than 50 years ago now. There is a recurrent question about Government oversight of the elements of the R&D system which are closely aligned to Government priorities.

The spending review last November gave a palpable uplift to the different parts of the system. It is good to accompany that with clearer, stronger structures to shape both the investment itself and the policy behind it. So for those on the outside of Government, a bit more clarity would be helpful in understanding the relationship between OSTS, UKRI, the minister in BEIS, as well as the existing structures that remain such as the Council for Science and Technology (CST). These latest additions have made understanding the UK system that little bit more complicated.

Over the past few years, there seems to have been more emphasis on tinkering with structures and institutions and not enough on outcomes. It would be welcome to have a period of stability to allow those structures to bed down. It is still not entirely clear how these different responsibilities will integrate once they are all up and running and working at full capacity. Some 18 months ago, the R&D Roadmap process was initiated, an attempt to pull the different strands together in a more coherent strategy that people could read and digest and understand. Yet, it was a process that began but never completed. Perhaps a combination of UKRI’s new strategy with the efforts of OSTS and others, can produce that clear sense of how they will also function together over the next five years. While none of us is looking for a Chinese-style Five Year Plan, there is a need for more visible coordination.

A mismatch exists between the secrecy of defence research and the more open world of academia. How should those two cultures mix and engage?

Distributed intelligence

Linked to that is a debate which is not new (it was discussed when Rothschild was published) about the balance between central coordination of ST&I policy and a more ‘distributed collective intelligence’ across the system. There has been much interesting thinking in recent years about distributed intelligence through systems. Given the enormous body of hyper-intelligent people working in the R&D system, we should consider investing seriously in creating the mechanisms and infrastructure to tap into and draw on these more dispersed, diffuse modes of expertise that run through the system.

In any discussion of relationships with others such as China and the EU, the UK must take into account a range of different security interests when considering research openness and collaboration.

There is a traditional tension in research policy between the soft and hard power of science and technology, so between the benefits that flow from international collaboration compared with a hard-edged view of our competitive position and strategic advantage. The Integrated Review could be seen as shifting the pendulum towards a more hawkish view of Britain’s place in the world, with science and technology securing and protecting that place. Notwithstanding the references to collaboration, more political attention is being given to the competitive side. This can be seen in the discussion of our relationship with China and the persistent uncertainty about Horizon Europe. Over the past decade, there has been a policy emphasis tilted towards science-diplomacy while now there is a move to a more competitive framework.

Speaking at a recent OECD event, Tarun Chhabra, Senior Director for Technology and National Security on the US National Security Council, noted that he saw the OSTS as his direct counterpart in the UK. In the same speech, he talked about a push that the Biden administration is making on what he called ‘democracy affirming technologies’. He argues that the US can draw on its strengths in global science technology networks, as both a collaborator as well as a competitor, to advance technologies that in some way underpin democracy in the Western world. That is one view of what strategic advantage constitutes in the world of 2022.

Culture clash

The Royal Society published a report entitled Science as an Open Enterprise that explored the notion of intelligent openness and strategic secrecy. Now, OSTS has to consider a range of different interests including defence, security, etc. The need for secrecy is perfectly understandable in this part of the R&D system. However, that part does sit somewhat removed from the world of many professionals inhabiting universities and elsewhere. How should those two cultures mix and engage?

The balance between soft and hard power, between open and closed, between competition and collaboration is at the absolute heart of the debate on science policy and research. It will continue to be so.

There is a tension in research policy between the soft and hard power of science and technology.