An influential UK parliament committee is calling for an urgent implementation plan for the Government’s science and technology ambitions that risk becoming empty slogans.
The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords, the upper house of the UK parliament, looked at the government’s aim to become a “science and tech superpower” by 2030, along with the target to boost spending on R&D to 2.4% of GDP, the 2017 average for OECD countries, by 2027.
The Committee welcomed the establishment of the National Science and Technology Council as a signal of an increased focus on science and technology but was concerned about the lack of an implementation plan.
“Science policy has been let down by short-termism and a proliferation of disparate strategies without an overarching vision. There are a large number of government bodies with unclear remits and interactions, which means that it is often unclear who owns a specific policy. At the time of writing, there was no science minister, which further blurs lines of accountability,” said the report.
Internationally, the Government’s ‘own-collaborate-access’ framework was meant to clarify policy on strategic areas of technology, but the Committee thought it was poorly understood and inconsistently applied. The failure to associate with Horizon Europe (see below) and cuts to Official Development Assistance have also damaged the UK’s reputation as a collaborative partner, and risk damaging its science base, said the hard hitting report.
“On the international stage, the failure to associate to Horizon Europe, and recent cuts to Official Development] Assistance, have damaged the UK’s reputation. The UK cannot be a science superpower in isolation; relationships must be repaired,” said the committee chair, Baroness Brown of Cambridge.
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The committee also pointed out that industry has been insufficiently engaged with the Government’s strategy.
An alternative science and innovation agency, ARIA, has £800m in funding but has struggled to appoint a CEO. It is now looking for input on future strategy and implementation.
“The Government has suggested areas of reform to increase private sector investment in R&D such as public procurement for innovation, regulatory reform, and R&D tax credits. But these areas are perennial suggestions. New ideas – and specific details – developed with business are needed if this time the outcomes are to be different,” she said.
“The Government has high ambitions for science and technology, which the Committee welcomes. Science and technology are crucial to the UK’s development and economic prosperity. Even with significantly lower spending than comparable countries, the UK’s excellent science base punches above its weight and can provide the tools to tackle major challenges like net zero.”
“But science policy has been far from perfect. R&D is a long-term endeavour which requires sustained focus and an implementation plan. But we found a plethora of strategies in different areas with little follow-through and less linking them together. There are numerous bodies and organisations with unclear or apparently overlapping responsibilities, and more are being added in the form of the National Science and Technology Council and the Office for Science and Technology Strategy. It is often unclear who is accountable for individual policies, and critically, for delivery,” she said.
“UK science and technology remains strong and respected around the world, but they will not deliver their full potential for the UK with an inconsistent and unclear science policy from Government. A new administration must retain the ambition for science and technology and develop a clear plan for delivery,” she concluded.
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