This is the concluding section of my 8-part survey of the issues facing the UK’s science and innovation system, An Index of Issues in UK Science and Innovation Policy.
The earlier sections were:
1. The Strategic Context
2. Some Overarching Questions
3. The Institutional Landscape
4. Science priorities: who decides?
5. UK Research and Innovation
6. UK Government Departmental Research
7. Horizon Europe (and what might replace it) and ARIA
8.1. A “science superpower”? Understanding the UK’s place in the world.
The idea that the UK is a “science superpower” has been a feature of government rhetoric for some time, most recently repeated in the Autumn Statement speech. What might this mean?
If we measure superpower status by the share of world resources devoted to R&D (both public and private) by single countries, there are only two science superpowers today – the USA and China, with a 30% and 24% share of science spending (OECD MSTI figures for 2019 adjusted for purchasing power parity, including all OECD countries plus China, Taiwan, Russia, Singapore, Argentina and Romania). If we take the EU as a single entity, that might add a third, with a 16% share (2019 figure, but excluding UK). The UK’s share is 2.5% – thus a respectable medium size science power, less than Japan (8.2%) and Korea (4.8%), between France (3.1%) and Canada (1.4%).
It’s often argued, though, that the UK achieves better results from a given amount of science investment than other countries. The primary outputs of academic science are scientific papers, and we can make an estimate of a paper’s significance by asking how often it is cited by other papers. So another measure of the UK’s scientific impact – the most flattering to the UK, it turns out – is to ask what fraction of the world’s most highly cited papers originate from the UK.
By this measure, the two leading scientific superpowers are, once again, the USA and China, with 32% and 24% shares respectively; on this measure the EU collectively, at 29%, does better than China. The UK scores well by this measure, at 13.4%, doing substantially better than higher spending countries like Japan (3.1%) and Korea (2.7%).
A strong science enterprise – however measured – doesn’t necessarily by itself translate into wider kinds of national and state power. Before taking the “science superpower” rhetoric serious we need to ask how these measures of scientific activity and scientific activity translate into other measures of power, hard or soft.
Even though measuring the success of our academic enterprise by its impact on other academics may seem somewhat self-referential, it does have some consequences in supporting the global reputation of the UK’s universities. This attracts overseas students, in turn bringing three benefits: a direct and material economic contribution to the balance of payments, worth £17.6 bn in 2019, a substantial subsidy to the research enterprise itself, and, for those students who stay, a source of talented immigrants who subsequently contribute positively to the economy.
The transnational nature of science is also significant here; having a strong national scientific enterprise provides a connection to this wider international network and strengthens the nation’s ability to benefit from insight and discoveries made elsewhere.
But how effective is the UK at converting its science prowess into hard economic power? One measure of this is the share of world economic value added in knowledge and technology intensive businesses. According to the USA’s NSF, the UK’s share of value added in this set of high productivity manufacturing and services industries that rely on science and technology is 2.6%. We can compare this with the USA (25%), China (25%), and the EU (18%). Other comparator countries include Japan (7.9%), Korea (3.7%) and Canada (1.2%).
Does it make sense to call the UK a science superpower? Both on the input measure of the fraction of the world’s science resources devoted to science, and on the size of the industry base this science underpins, the UK is an order of magnitude smaller than the world leaders. In the historian David Edgerton’s very apt formulation, the UK is a large Canada, not a small USA.
Where the UK does outperform is in the academic impact of its scientific output. This does confer some non-negligible soft power benefits of itself. The question to ask now is whether more can be done to deploy this advantage to address the big challenges the nation now faces.
8.2. The UK can’t do everything
The UK’s current problems are multidimensional and its resources are constrained. With less than 3% of the world’s research and development resources, no matter how effectively these resources are deployed, the UK will have to be selective in the strategic choices it makes about research priorities.
In some areas, the UK may have some special advantages, either because the problems/opportunities are specific to the UK, or because history has given the UK a comparative advantage in a particular area. One example of the former might be the development of technologies for exploiting deep-water floating offshore wind power. In the latter category, I believe the UK does retain an absolute advantage in researching nuclear fusion power.
In other areas, the UK will do best by being part of larger transnational research efforts. At the applied end, these can be in effect led by multinational companies with a significant presence in the UK. Formal inter-governmental collaborations are effective in areas of “big science” – which combine fundamental science goals with large scale technology development. For example, in high energy physics the UK has an important presence in CERN, and in radio astronomy the Square Kilometer Array is based in the UK. Horizon Europe offered the opportunity to take part in trans-European public/private collaborations on a number of different scales, and if the UK isn’t able to associate with Horizon Europe other ways of developing international collaborations will have to be built.
But there will remain areas of technology where the UK has lost so much capability that the prospect of catching up with the world frontier is probably unrealistic. Perhaps the hardware side of CMOS silicon technology is in this category (though significant capability in design remains).
8.3. Some pitfalls of strategic and “mission driven” R&D in the UK
One recently influential approach to defining research priorities links them to large-scale “missions”, connected to significant areas of societal need – for example, adapting to climate change, or ensuring food security. This has been a significant new element in the design of the current EU Horizon Programme (see EU Missions in Horizon Europe).
For this approach to succeed, there needs to be a match between the science policy “missions” and a wider, long term, national strategy. In my view, there also needs to be a connection to the specific and concrete engineering outcomes that are needed to make an impact on wider society.
In the UK, there have been some moves in this direction. The research councils in 2011 collectively defined six major cross-council themes (Digital Economy; Energy; Global Food Security; Global Uncertainties; Lifelong Health and Wellbeing; Living with Environmental Change), and steered research resources into (mostly interdisciplinary) projects in these areas. More recently, UKRI’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund was funded from a “National Productivity Investment Fund” introduced in the 2016 Autumn Statement and explicitly linked to the Industrial Strategy.
These previous initiatives illustrate three pitfalls of strategic or “mission driven” R&D policy.
- The areas of focus may be explicitly attached to a national strategy, but that strategy proves to be too short-lived, and the research programmes it inspires outlive the strategy itself. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund was linked to the 2017 Industrial Strategy, but this strategy was scrapped in 2021, despite the fact that the government was still controlled by the same political party.
- Research priorities may be connected to a lasting national priority, but the areas of focus within that priority are not sufficiently specified. This leads to a research effort that risks being too diffuse, lacking a commitment to a few specific technologies and not sufficiently connected to implementation at scale. In my view, this has probably been the case in too much research in support of low-carbon energy.
- In the absence of a well-articulated strategy from central government, agencies such as Research Councils and Innovate UK guess what they think the national strategy ought to be, and create programmes in support of that guess. This then risks lacking legitimacy, longevity, and wider join-up across government.
In summary, mission driven science and innovation policy needs to be informed by carefully thought through national strategy that commands wide support, is applied across government, and is sustained over the long-term.
8.4. Getting serious about national strategy
The UK won’t be able to use the strengths of its R&D system to solve its problems unless there is a settled, long-term view about what it wants to achieve. What kind of country does the UK want to be in 2050? How does it see its place in the world? In short, it needs a strategy.
A national strategy needs to cut across a number of areas. There needs to be an industrial strategy, about how the country makes a living in the world, how it ensures the prosperity of its citizens and generates the funds needed to pay for its public services. An energy strategy is needed to navigate the wrenching economic transition that the 2050 Net Zero target implies. As our health and social care system buckles under the short-term aftermath of the pandemic, and faces the long-term challenge of an ageing population, a health and well-being strategy will be needed to define the technological and organisational innovation needed to yield an affordable and humane health and social care system. And, after the lull that followed the end of the cold war, a strategy to ensure national security in an increasingly threatening world must return to prominence.
These strategies need to reflect the real challenges that the UK faces, as outlined in the first part of this series. The goals of industrial strategy must be to restore productivity growth and to address the UK’s regional economic imbalances. Innovation and skills must be a central part of this, and given the condition large parts of the UK find themselves in, there need to be conscious efforts to rebuild innovation and manufacturing capacity in economically lagging regions. There needs to be a focus on increasing the volume of high value exports (both goods and services) that are competitive on world markets. The goal here should be to start to close the balance of payments gap, but in addition international competitive pressure will also bring productivity improvements.
An energy strategy needs to address both the supply and demand side to achieve a net zero system by 2050, and to guarantee security of supply. It needs to take a whole systems view at the outset, and to be discriminating in deciding which aspects of the necessary technologies can be developed in the UK, and which will be sourced externally. Again, the key will be specificity. For example, it is not enough to simply promote hydrogen as a solution to the net zero problem – it’s a question of specifying how it is made, what it is used for, and identifying which technological problems are the ones that the UK is in a good position to focus on and benefit from, whether that might be electrolysis, manufacture of synthetic aviation fuel, or whatever.
A health and well-being strategy needs to clarify the existing conceptual confusion about whether the purpose of a “Life Sciences Strategy” is to create high value products for export, or to improve the delivery of health and social care services to the citizens of the UK. Both are important, and in a well-thought through strategy each can support the other. But they are distinct purposes, and success in one does not necessarily translate to success in the other.
Finally, a security strategy should build on the welcome recognition of the 2021 Integrated Review that UK national security needs to be underpinned by science and technology. The traditional focus of security strategy is on hard power, and this year’s international events remind us that this remains important. But we have also learnt that the resilience of the material base of economy can’t be taken for granted. We need a better understanding of the vulnerabilities of the supply chains for critical goods (including food and essential commodities).
The structure of government leads to a tendency for strategies in each of these areas to be developed independently of each other. But it’s important to understand the way these strategies interact with each other. We won’t have any industry if we don’t have reliable and affordable low carbon energy sources. Places can’t improve their economic performance if large fractions of their citizens can’t take part in the labour market due to long-term ill-health. Strategic investments in the defence industry can have much wider economic spillover benefits.
For this reason it is not enough for individual strategies to be left to individual government departments. Nor is our highly centralised, London-based government in a position to understand the specific needs and opportunities to be found in different parts of the country – there needs to be more involvement of devolved nation and city-region governments. The strategy needs to be truly national.
8.5. Being prepared for the unexpected
Not all science should be driven by a mission-driven strategy. It is important to maintain the health of the basic disciplines, because this provides resilience in the face of unwelcome surprises. In 2019, we didn’t realise how important it would be to have some epidemiologists to turn to. Continuing support for the core disciplines of physical, biological and medical science, engineering, social science and the humanities should remain a core mission of the research councils, the strength of our universities is something we should preserve and be proud of, and their role in training the researchers of the future will remain central.
Science and innovation policy also needs to be able to create the conditions that produce welcome surprises, and then exploit them. We do need to be able to experiment in funding mechanisms and in institutional forms. We need to support creative and driven individuals, and to recognise the new opportunities that new discoveries anywhere in the world might offer. We do need to be flexible in finding ways to translate new discoveries into implemented engineering solutions, into systems that work in the world. This spirit of experimentation could be at the heart of the new agency ARIA, while the rest of the system should be flexible enough to adapt and scale up any new ways of working that emerge from these experiments.
8.7 Building a national strategy that endures
A national strategy of the kind I called for above isn’t something that can be designed by the research community; it needs a much wider range of perspectives if, as is necessary, it’s going to be supported by a wide consensus across the political system and wider society. But innovation will play a key role in overcoming our difficulties, so there needs to be some structure to make sure insights from the R&D system are central to the formulation and execution of this strategy.
The new National Science and Technology Council, supported by the Office for Science and Technology Strategy, could play an important role here. Its position at the heart of government could give it the necessary weight to coordinate activities across all government departments. It would be a positive step if there was a cross-party commitment to keep this body at the heart of government; it was unfortunate that with the Prime Ministerial changes over the summer and autumn the body was downgraded and subsequently restored. To work effectively its relationships with the Government Office for Science, the Council for Science and Technology need to be clarified.
UKRI should be able to act as an important two-way conduit between the research and development community and the National Science and Technology Council. It should be a powerful mechanism for conveying the latest insights and results from science and technology to inform the development of national strategy. In turn, its own priorities for the research it supports should be driven by that national strategy. To fulfil this function, UKRI will be have to develop the strategic coherence that the Grant Review has found to be currently lacking.
The 2017 Industrial Strategy introduced the Industrial Strategy Council as an advisory body; this was abruptly wound up in 2021. There is a proposal to reconstitute the Industrial Strategy Council as a statutory body, with a similar status, official but independent of government, to the Office of Budgetary Responsibility or the Climate Change Committee. This would be a positive way of subjecting policy to a degree of independent scrutiny, holding the government of the day to account, and ensuring some of the continuity that has been lacking in recent years.
8.8 A science and innovation system for hard times
Internationally, the last few years have seen a jolting series of shocks to the optimism that had set in after the end of the cold war. We’ve had a worldwide pandemic, there’s an ongoing war in Europe involving a nuclear armed state, we’ve seen demonstrations of the fragility of global supply chains, while the effects of climate change are becoming ever more obvious.
The economic statistics show decreasing rates of productivity growth in all developed countries; there’s a sense of the worldwide innovation system beginning to stall. And yet one can’t fail to be excited by rapid progress in many areas of technology; in artificial intelligence, in the rapid development and deployment of mRNA vaccines, in the promise of new quantum technologies, to give just a few examples. The promise of new technology remains, yet the connection to the economic growth and rising living standards that we came to take for granted in the post-war period seems to be broken.
The UK demonstrates this contrast acutely. Despite some real strengths in its R&D system, its economic performance has fallen well behind key comparator nations. Shortcomings in its infrastructure and its healthcare system are all too obvious, while its energy security looks more precarious than for many years. There are profound disparities in regional economic performance, which hold back the whole country.
If there was ever a time when we could think of science as being an ornament to a prosperous society, those times have passed. Instead, we need to think of science and technology as the means by which our society becomes more prosperous and secure – and adapt our science and technology system so it is best able to achieve that goal.