Strategic Advantage through Science and Technology

Volume 23, Issue 5 - July 2023

Dame Frances Saunders

Dame Frances Saunders

Dr Dame Frances Saunders DBE CB FREng HonFInstP chaired the Royal Academy of Engineering Working Group that produced the report: Strategic advantage through science and technology: the engineering view. She was the chief executive of Dstl from 2006-2012. She now undertakes a portfolio of science and engineering advisory work including chairing boards for the Cockcroft Institute and Photonics Manufacturing and Quantum Technology Hubs. She was a member of the REF 2021 Physics Panel and was President of the Institute of Physics from 2013-15.

The Integrated Review described the ambition for the UK to become a science superpower. This has prompted much debate on what that means and how it can be achieved.

The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy1, published in March 2021, headlined the twin ambitions for the UK to become a scientific superpower by 2030 and to adopt a more proactive approach to building and sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology.

Since then, much has changed in Government including the launch of the new Department for Science Innovation and Technology (DSIT). In parallel, there has been much debate within the research, innovation and engineering communities about what those stated ambitions might mean in practice. The Royal Academy of Engineering has contributed to those debates and has published an engineering viewpoint on what we mean by strategic advantage, together with the key ingredients and actions we believe are necessary for that ambition to be pursued successfully2.

For those of us who have worked in defence and security, the identification of S&T capability areas, which are critical and where ‘ownership’ is important, is not a new challenge. Over the years there have been many reviews and lists of such critical technologies assembled. These were often contentious, as technology advocates aimed to get theirs on the list while those who assembled the list tried to focus on technologies where independence was critical. They recognised, rightly, that it would be unaffordable for the UK to have a sovereign capability in every technology that might contribute to the achievement of strategic advantage.

The Integrated Review also acknowledged this dilemma. It noted that in some areas the UK would have to collaborate in order to gain access to the leading edge of a technology. In others, it would have to rely on countries who had greater capability. These ‘own, collaborate or buy’ decisions are extremely complex and the resulting reliance on others potentially uncomfortable.

They also require leadership and active decision making, rather than the benign neglect that has seen the UK lose important capabilities in the past (particularly in production engineering and manufacturing) without realising they were slipping away until it was too late. It is also the case that the choices inherent in collaboration or in buying technology are not without costs and risks.

To collaborate and partner with others presupposes you have something to offer that your potential partner values equally highly, or else it will not work. Buying in technology, on the other hand, demands that you still have the absorptive capacity and skills necessary to specify and assess what you are buying and then experiment with how to use it, so that it delivers the benefits you require.

Reliance on others also affects resilience. International shocks, such as those caused by Covid or the war in Ukraine, can disrupt access when worldwide demand exceeds supply, or politics intervenes.

With the complex set of issues that identifying and managing critical technologies entails, it is obvious that Government needs to do more than just publish a new list periodically. It must also lead planning for the long term and then stick to the direction it sets.

Long term in this context also means ‘beyond five-year political cycles’: longer-term budgets can override Treasury annual demands, will result in more durable institutions but will not lend themselves to so many short-term announceable initiatives.

Cross-party engagement and adoption of this agenda would also help achieve the necessary stability to enable the Research and Innovation (R&I) system to deliver. It would provide the confidence needed for businesses to invest and thrive. This call for longer term stability does not mean being unresponsive to emerging challenges or lacking the agility to capitalise on new opportunities. Rather, it implies having a more stable environment which creates a platform of well-connected people and capabilities that can respond rapidly when such a response is needed.

Owning a technology

So, what more does it take to ‘own’ a technology and harness the strategic benefits that are on offer? This is where taking a systems approach is of critical importance. It must start with an honest appraisal of the current UK strength and competitiveness in that specific technology. There must be an objective view of the challenges that will arise in the end-to-end process of taking it from basic research, through the different Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs), up to late-stage R&D and then on to adoption, scale-up and delivery of the promised benefits.

What is often missing at an early stage is a realistic, quantitative assessment of the potential benefits to industry and end-users that the technology can deliver. This can be used to create some performance targets to aim for that will make all the later stage challenges and risks worth the effort and the investment.

This is also the time to start considering whether there are any potential downsides, or risks, from pursuing the technology. These conversations need a connected community of Government, academic researchers, industry, beneficiaries and wider stakeholders in the technology. Together, they can provide both expert advice and can support planning to address the notorious valley of death into which so many efforts to take technologies up the TRL ladder continue to fall.

Enabling technologies

Often missing from such discussions are the other enabling technologies that need to be accessed, or optimised, in order to push forward later-stage R&D, integrate the technology into engineered systems and then manufacture them. Specific issues like size, weight and power have to be addressed at some stage to move from proof-of-concept prototypes to well-engineered products.

Building the confidence that performance targets are achievable may also require access to infrastructure such as simulation, digital twins and testbeds. Of course, roadmaps of how a technology needs to develop and the factors that will enable its success can be problematic. Sharing the thinking, and the tacit intellectual property, that roadmaps include can be commercially sensitive.

Nevertheless, it is worth considering how to share as much intelligence as possible and whether industry/university consortia can sometimes work pre-competitively to get the technology to a particular TRL where all can share the benefits. From there, the programme can go on to accelerate and scale up by building on that platform of shared knowhow. This may be even more important where the benefits are to wider society in areas such as the environment and healthcare.

The fact that Government has moved to a point where it sees Science and Technology as central to the delivery of its policy agenda must be good news. However, beyond that recognition and positive statements of its intentions, there is much still to do to change mindsets and long-held norms. Only then can such an innovation policy become integrated into all Government Departments as a priority and DSIT is not left alone holding the baby. Coherence of approach across Government is also a priority in building confidence in the R&I system so that the rhetoric will stick and be actioned.


Where and how Government intervenes in the lifecycle of technology development, adoption and deployment also needs to be challenged. Government gets increasingly uncomfortable in supporting technology as it moves up in TRL. However, there is a compelling case for the public sector to provide more support to manage the risks associated with late-stage R&D and market creation – the socio-economic benefits from the new products, processes, services and technologies are shared, so the risk must be too. This case is arguably stronger when in pursuit of strategic advantage and in the face of interventionist global competition.

We now have an updated list of five critical technologies set out in the March 2023 S&T Framework. The promised publication of a long-term plan for each technology is well underway, with strategies for quantum, semiconductor and wireless infrastructure produced so far. However, this is just the start and will not effect change if there is no adoption and buy-in to the approach by the R&I community at large.

Action means intervention. Having signposted an overall direction, there will still be choices to be made: about where and how best to pursue strategic advantage in the round and select between conflicts that might arise; about who will drive forward the resulting plans at pace; about how to manage the risks of collaboration or reliance on others; and about what skills will be required to support delivery. Then resources will need to follow.