Britain’s plan to become a “superpower of science and technology” lacks focus and is so full of new organizational structures that the country risks becoming a “superpower of bureaucracy”, said an influential peer of the cross bench.
Professor John Krebs, co-author of a Lords report on the government’s global ambitions for science and technology, said that despite laudable rhetoric, there was no clear strategy on how the ambition of the ” superpower”, and there are reasons to doubt that it would. succeed.
Speaking at a briefing on the report, Science and technology superpower: More than a catchphrase?, Lord Krebs said he feared ministers might quietly drop or reduce funding commitments needed to reach the target. Meanwhile, the creation of the new National Science and Technology Council and the Office of Science and Technology Strategy, in addition to existing bodies like UK Research and Innovation, threatens to make bureaucracy even worse, he said.
“The government’s plan to become a scientific superpower is great, but at the moment it feels like running a marathon with your shoelaces tied and no signs telling you how to get there,” Krebs said. “There is a danger of the UK becoming a bureaucratic superpower rather than a scientific 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 declared its ambition for the UK to become a “science and technology superpower” by 2030. The target is based on a commitment to increase research and development funding to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. This requires reversing a trend 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 “great ambitions” for science and technology, the inquiry found a “huge number of strategies” in different areas with little connection between them. Meanwhile, numerous government agencies had ill-defined or overlapping responsibilities, and it was often unclear who was responsible for what.
More than a dozen strategies and initiatives linked to research and innovation were launched in the life sciences alone between 2017 and 2021, according to the research, leading to what Krebs called a “confusing picture” and suspicions that the government could be better writing new strategies. than deliver them.
The report urges the government to be specific about what it wants to achieve and to publish a clear implementation plan with measurable targets. He calls for working more closely with business to meet the 2.4% of GDP target and for the urgent appointment of a new cabinet-level science minister. The position has been vacant since George Freeman resigned early last month.
Peers continue to criticize the UK’s approach to international scientific collaborations, with massive cuts to foreign aid coming out of nowhere and a not joining the £80bn Horizon Europe program due to a dispute over Brexit in Northern Ireland. “Departing from the larger international collaborative program is remarkably inept,” Krebs said. The UK got far more money from the previous Horizon program than it put into it.
Tory leadership candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak had been “virtually silent” on science and technology, Krebs said, raising further questions about the government’s commitment to the superpower’s 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, though it’s not something the committee has investigated, is that with the emphasis on tax cuts, some of these commitments to increase science spending could be dropped or quietly reduced.”
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