As times change, the UK’s R&D landscape needs to change too

I took part in a panel discussion last Thursday at the Royal Society, about the UK’s R&D landscape. The other panelists were Anna Dickinson from the think tank Onward, and Ben Johnson, Policy Advisor at the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology, and our chair was Athene Donald. This is a much expanded and tidied version of my opening remarks.

What is the optimum shape of the research and development landscape for the UK? The interesting and important questions here are:

  • What kind of R&D is being done?
  • In what kind of institution is R&D being done?
  • What kind of people do R&D?
  • Who sets the priorities?
  • Who pays for it?

I’m a physicist, but I want to start with lessons from history and geography.

If there’s one lesson we should learn from history, it’s that the way things are now, isn’t the way they always have been. And we should be curious about different countries arrange their R&D landscapes – not just in the Anglophone countries and our European partners and neighbours that we are so familiar with, but in the East Asian countries that have been so economically successful recently.

The particular form that a nation’s R&D landscape takes arises from a set of political, economic circumstances, influenced by the outcome of ideological arguments that take place both within the science community and in wider society.

I’ve just read Iwan Rhys Morus’s fascinating and engaging book on 19th century Science and Technology: “How the Victorians took us to the Moon”. It’s fitting that the book begins with a discussion of just such an ideological debate – about the future orientation of the Royal Society after the death of Sir Joseph Banks in 1820, at the end of his autocratic – and aristocratic – 41 year rule over the Society. The R&D landscape that emerged from these struggles was the one appropriate for the United Kingdom in the Victorian era – a nation going through an industrial revolution, and acquiring an world empire. That landscape was dominated by men of science (and they were men), who believed, above all, in the idea of progress. They valued self-discipline, self-confidence, precision and systematic thinking, while sharing assumptions about gender, class and race that would no longer be acceptable in today’s world.

Morus argues that many of the attitudes, assumptions and institutions of the science community that led to the great technological advances of the 20th century were laid down in the Victorian period. As someone who received their training in one of those great Victorian institutions – Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, that rings true to me. I vividly remember as a graduate student that the great physicist Sir Sam Edwards had a habit of dismissing some rival theorist with the words “it was all done by Lord Rayleigh”. Lots of it probably was.

But also, learning how to do science in the mid-1980’s, I was just at the tail end of another era – what David Edgerton calls the Warfare State. The UK was a nation in which science had been subservient to the defence needs of two world wars, and a Cold War in which technology was the front line. The state ran a huge defence research establishment, and an associated nuclear complex where the lines between civil nuclear power and the nuclear weapons programme were blurred. This was a corporatist world, in which the boundaries between big, national companies like GEC and ICI and the state were themselves not clear. And there was a lot of R&D being done – in 1980, the UK was one of the most R&D intensive countries in the world.

We live in a very different world now. R&D in the private sector still dominates, but now pretty much half of it is done in the labs of overseas owned multinationals. In a world in which R&D is truly globalised, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about UK plc. There’s much more emphasis on the role of spin-outs and start-ups – venture capital supported companies based on protected intellectual property. This too is globalised – we agonise about how few of these companies, even when they are successful, stay to scale up in the UK rather than moving to Germany or the USA. The big corporate laboratories of the past, where use-inspired basic research co-existed with more applied work, are a shadow of their former selves or gone entirely, eroded by a new focus on shareholder value.

Meanwhile, we have seen UK governments systematically withdraw support from applied research, as Jon Agar’s work has documented. After a couple of decades in which university research had been squeezed, the 2000’s saw a significant increase in support through the research councils, but this came at the cost of continual erosion of public sector research establishments. This has left the research councils in a much more dominant position in the government funding landscape – the fraction of government R&D funding allocated through research councils has increased from about 12% in the mid-1980’s to around 30% now. But the biggest rise in government support for R&D has come through the non-specific subsidy for private sector – the R&D tax credit – whose cost rose from just over £1 billion in 2010 to more than £7 billion in 2019.

These dramatic changes in the R&D landscape that have unfolded between the 1980s and now should be understood in the context of the wider changes in the UK’s political economy over that period, often characterised as the dominance of neoliberalism and globalisation. There has been an insistence on the primacy of market mechanisms, and the full integration of the UK in a global free-trading environment, together with a rejection of any idea of state planning or industrial strategy. The shape of the UK economy changed very dramatically, with a dramatic shrinking of the manufacturing sector, the exacerbation of regional economic imbalances, and a persistent trade deficit with the rest of the world. The rise and fall of North Sea Oil and the development of a bubble in financial services has contributed to these trends.

The world looks very different now. The pandemic taught us that global supply chains can be very fragile in a crisis, while the Ukraine war reminded us that state security still, ultimately, depends on high technology and productive capacity. The slower crisis of climate change continues – we face a wrenching economic transition to move our energy economy to a zero carbon basis, while the already emerging effects of climate disruption will be challenging. In the UK, we have a failing economy, where productivity growth has flat-lined since 2008; the consequences are that wages have stagnated to a degree unprecedented in living memory and public services have deteriorated to politically unacceptable levels.

In place of globalisation, we see a retreat to trading blocks. Industrial strategy has returned to the USA at scale $50 bn from the CHIPS act to rebuild its semiconductor industry, and $370 bn for a green transition. The EU is responding. Of course in East Asia and China industrial strategy never went away.

So the question we face now is whether our R&D landscape is the right one for the times we live in now? I don’t think so. Of course, our values are different from those both of the Victorians and mid-20th century technocrats, and our circumstances are different too. Many of the assumptions of the post-1980’s political settlement are now in question. So how must the landscape evolve?

The new R&D landscape needs to more focused on the pressing problems we face: the net zero transition, the productivity slowdown, poor health outcomes, the security of the state. Here in the Royal Society, I don’t need to make the case for the importance of basic science, exploratory research, the unfettered inquiries of our most creative scientists. But in addition , we need more applied R&D, it needs to be more geographically dispersed, more inclusive. It has to build on the existing strengths of the country – but by itself that is not enough, and we will have to rebuild some of the innovation and manufacturing capacity that we have lost. And I think this manufacturing and innovation capacity is important for basic science too, because it’s this technological capacity that allows us to implement and benefit from the basic science. For example, one can be excited by the opportunities of quantum computing, but to make it work it’s probably going to rely on manufacturing technologies already implemented for semiconductors.

The national R&D landscape we have has evolved as the material conditions and ideological assumptions of the nation have changed, and as those conditions and assumptions change, so must the national R&D landscape change in response.