Britain’s plan to become a “science and technology superpower” is so unfocused and so full of new organizational structures that the country risks becoming a “bureaucratic superpower” instead, an influential peer has said.
Professor John Krebs, co-author of a Lords report on the government’s global science and technology ambitions, said that despite the laudatory rhetoric, there was no clear strategy for how the “superpower” ambition could be realized and reasons to doubt that it would become successful.
Speaking at a briefing on the Science and Technology Superpower: More than a Slogan?, Lord Krebs said he feared ministers could quietly drop or reduce the funding commitments needed to meet the target. Meanwhile, the creation of the new National Science and Technology Council and the Office for Science and Technology Strategy – on top of existing bodies such as Research and Innovation UK – threatens to make bureaucracy even worse, he said.
“The government’s plan to become a scientific superpower is great, but right now it feels like running a marathon with your shoelaces tied and no signs telling you how to get to the finish line,” Krebs said. “There is a danger that the UK will become a bureaucracy superpower rather than a science superpower.”
The Cabinet Office said last year that cutting-edge science and technology were “essential” to the country’s prosperity in the digital age, and announced its ambition for the UK to become “scientific and technological superpower” by 2030. The target is based on a pledge to increase R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. This requires trend reversal which saw funding fall from 1.84% of GDP to 1.74% between 1985 and 2019.
Lady Brown, chair of the Lords committee, said that while the government had “high ambitions” for science and technology, the inquiry found “an abundance of strategies” in different areas with little connection. Meanwhile, multiple official bodies had ill-defined or overlapping responsibilities, and it was often unclear who was responsible for what.
More than a dozen research and innovation-related strategies and initiatives were launched in the life sciences alone between 2017 and 2021, the study said, leading to what Krebs called a “confusing landscape” and suspicions that government may be better at writing new strategies than delivering them.
The report calls on the government to be specific about what it wants to achieve and to publish a clear implementation plan with measurable targets. He is calling for closer work with business to achieve the 2.4% of GDP target and the urgent appointment of a new science minister at cabinet level. The post has been vacant since George Freeman resigned early last month.
Peers continue to criticize UK approach to international scientific collaboration, p huge cuts in foreign aid come out of the blue and a failure to join the £80bn Horizon Europe program because of the Brexit dispute in Northern Ireland. “To cut ourselves off from the largest international cooperation program is an extremely inappropriate thing to do,” Krebs said. The UK got a lot more money out of the previous Horizon program than it put in.
The Tory leadership candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, have been “virtually silent” on science and technology, Krebs said, raising further doubts about the government’s commitment to the superpower goal. “This report, and its conclusions and recommendations, should be on the desk of the next prime minister as soon as he or she takes office,” he said. “What worries me — although it’s not something the committee has looked at — is with the emphasis on tax cuts, some of these commitments to increase spending on science may be quietly removed or reduced.”