Science Superpower


What is a 'science superpower'?

Volume 23, Issue 3 - November 2022

Sarah Main and Graeme Reid

Sarah Main and Graeme Reid

Professor Sarah Main is the Executive Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering and represents the interests of CaSE members in the media and in high-level discussions with Government Ministers, Parliamentary Committees, Chief Scientific Advisers, and senior civil servants. She engages with industry, charity and academic leaders across the UK science base. Professor Graeme Reid is Professor of Science and Research Policy at University College London. He chairs the Board of the National Physical Laboratory. He worked in the Business Department, the Cabinet Office, and HM Treasury before moving to UCL in 2014.


  • Successive Governments have called for higher levels of investment in research and innovation
  • Recently, this has been accompanied by Government aims of the UK becoming a science superpower
  • There is no unambiguous definition of the term ‘science superpower’
  • Professors Main and Reid have been exploring scenarios for the UK as a science superpower
  • This record of the discussion also includes references to more recent events.

Successive Governments have called for increased levels of overall R&D investment in the UK.  More recently, this has been set within a wider agenda of making the UK a science superpower.  The term ‘science superpower’ appears to have been interpreted in different ways by different parts of Government.  Over the past few months, we explored several scenarios for the science superpower agenda, each one describing a different version of future research and innovation in the UK. 

We held roundtable discussions and interviews with stakeholders across the R&D community, including those in sciences and humanities, the business sector, and the various parts of Government with an interest in R&D.  We also spoke to funding bodies, think tanks, colleagues in international diplomacy and many more.  We are grateful to the British Academy, The School of Advanced Study, and the Wales Innovation Network for their support.

The question we explored was not whether the UK could become a science superpower but, assuming the ambition is realised, what models of a science superpower are available to the UK?  What do stakeholders value about each model and what challenges arise under each model?  Consequently, what are the choices for policymakers who are pursuing the science superpower agenda? 

By harnessing political will and the investment commitments that are already being made, it should be possible to deliver a more innovative R&D-led UK economy and culture. 

The term ‘science superpower’ was used frequently by senior figures in previous Governments.  The science superpower agenda is now part of the formal responsibilities of the science minister.  Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson linked it to his levelling-up agenda back in 2021.  The then Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, connected the science superpower agenda with fiscal incentives such as R&D tax credits in the Spending Review that year.  The Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, has written about the global science superpower, associating that ambition with policymaking and strategic advantage.  Liz Truss, when Foreign Secretary, linked business investment to the science superpower agenda.

In our discussions, we heard a wide range of reactions to the term ‘science superpower’.  Some of the most frequent reactions concerned the definition of the term.  Many respondents from the research and innovation community said that they did not know what the term meant.  Some qualified this, adding thoughts like: ‘I don't know what it means, but it sounds exciting, and I want to be part of it.’  Others questioned the scope of the term and asked whether it included humanities, arts, social sciences, engineering and innovation? 

There were also some concerns about the term ‘superpower’, pointing to the colonial overtones, which might have implications in international relations.  Some observed that ‘superpower’ is not an attribute one claims for oneself: rather, it is a recognition that others confer. 

However, as a political slogan, the term ‘science superpower’ has gained wide support.  Quotes online and in newspapers show large corporates aligning with the science superpower ambition, often with signals that it may encourage further investment.

Scenarios for research and innovation

R&D investment in the UK currently equates to about 1.8% of GDP (official statistics now show a higher figure following revisions by the ONS) and it has been at that level for decades.  The science superpower agenda includes the ambition to rapidly increase that proportion to 2.4% of GDP and beyond. 

We developed three scenarios – three versions of that science superpower status.  These scenarios are not mutually exclusive.  They are designed to highlight choices and stimulate debate about the future of research and innovation in the UK.  Each the three scenarios represent a simplified version of how the science superpower agenda might evolve.  In reality, some combination of scenarios is likely to emerge.

In the first scenario, the research and innovation system will maintain its current shape. Under this scenario, every part of the research and innovation landscape will expand equally over the coming years, cementing in both the strengths and weaknesses of the existing system. 

The second scenario envisages current public spending on research and innovation remaining intact.  Business investment in R&D undergoes significant expansion and accounts for the great majority of the expansion of overall levels of R&D

In the third scenario, expansion in R&D is driven largely by the Government's own priorities in areas like public health, climate change, defence and security.  Business investment and Government support for the research base remain intact while Government Departments expand their research portfolios substantially.  

The equal expansion scenario (Scenario 1), we believe, would not be an attractive option: indeed, at some workshops we described this as ‘our null hypothesis’.  Yet, in several parts of the country, the scenario was seen as an attractive option: it provided predictability in an uncertain world and offered a degree of protection to parts of the research and innovation community who felt uncomfortable with the prospect of rapidly expanding R&D investment from Government Departments or businesses. 

The expansion in business investment in R&D under Scenario 2 has been attractive to finance ministers around the world, including the UK.  There are many attractive features of expanded business investment.  However, this scenario would mark a shift in the balance of influence with more decisions falling to the marketplace.  For example, businesses may well choose to expand their R&D in locations that are at odds with other areas of Government policy.  In an extreme example, higher levels of business R&D investment could be concentrated in the South East of England, expanding regional disparities rather than levelling up. 

Finally, in Scenario 3, where Government priorities play a much larger part in the research and innovation landscape, a question arises as to which Government?  We are seeing progressively greater levels of devolution at national and regional levels in the UK.  The Scottish Government takes a different view on nuclear power and a different view on genetically-modified crops from the UK Government.  So whose priorities would prevail? 

Tensions and choices

These scenarios present several versions of the future and raise many questions about the balance of influence between Government, researchers themselves and business investors.  Opportunities and challenges that arose frequently in our consultations are shown in Table 1.  The current balance of influence is the result of a long evolutionary process of policy development. The UK is unfamiliar with a radical perturbation in the level of research investment, shifting the balance of influence over a relatively short time.

Table 1.  Opportunities and challenges of different scenarios 

Equal expansionBusiness investmentGovernment priorities


Protects domains that may be threatened by further concentration

Case for expanding public spending on R&D

Government priorities reflect consensus (climate, health, defence, etc)

Many stakeholders benefit a little

Pathways from academe to economy

Signals long-term intent that attracts business investment


Locks weaknesses into the system and prevents radical reform

Policy instruments to attract business investment

Stability of Government priorities over time

Securing more public spending ahead of business investment

Free market influence (e.g. on regional distribution of R&D)

Differences in priorities across devolved nations and regions of the UK

There is no obvious consensus on the optimum distribution of influence after R&D investment levels have risen and science superpower status has been secured.  Nor is it clear how long it would take for changes in influence to reach a new equilibrium or whether that balance would be stable in the way it has been to date.  Hopefully, this work can provide a stimulus for further discussion and debate.