Report slams UK plan to become 'science superpower' by 2030

Lords cite 'frequent' policy changes, lack of metrics, post-Brexit funding as top issues

How's the UK doing in its ambitions to become a sci-tech "superpower" by 2030? According to a report by the Lords Science and Technology Committee, not well, and a row over EU funding and concern over their career prospects is continuing to affect scientists in the country.

The peers, headed by committee chair Julia King (Baroness Brown of Cambridge), an engineer with a PhD in fracture mechanics, said there were no "specific, measurable outcomes", no delivery plan, a short-termist outlook, and "frequent policy changes."

King added: "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."

The peers said the UK was currently on track to make the goal of becoming a "science superpower" an "empty slogan."

Horizon Europe, funding and UK career scientists make a move

The committee said it heard evidence from groups including the Turing Institute, the UK Space Agency, the Royal Academy of Engineering, UKCloud and many of the major universities, with many stating deep "concern about the UK's lack of association with Horizon Europe post-Brexit." The EU's "key funding programme for research and innovation" has a budget of €95.5 billion (c $97.6 billion).

If you are not a huge name, the EU has much more funding for early beginners and early career researchers. Not having [Horizon funding] for the British is a big hit

The UK has already received a relatively large chunk of funding from the project's predecessor, Horizon 2020, in which it was a "prominent" participant before leaving the EU. "Between 2014 and 2020, UK researchers received over €7 billion (c $7.5 billion) from the 'Horizon 2020' programme … 12.1 percent of all the funds awarded, second only to Germany," the report notes.

Tech efforts and outfits that have received funding from Horizon 2020 include open source Microsoft Office rival Collabora, ProtonMail parent Proton Technologies AG, the Unconventional Computing Laboratory in Bristol, the Li-Fi group, local graphene research, and the European Processor Initiative, which is working on a homegrown RISC-based chip project for Europe.

While attempts have been made to associate [PDF] with Horizon Europe, and the UK government wants to do so in principle, it hasn't happened as disagreements over the UK's relationship with the EU continue to roll on.

Part of the reason for this is the UK's attempt under Boris Johnson's administration to ditch post-Brexit trade arrangements dealing with the fact that the EU country of Ireland and the UK territory of Northern Ireland share an internal island border – known as The Northern Ireland Protocol. The Protocol agrees to check certain goods at Northern Ireland's ports and that NI adhere to EU rules on product standards.

The Protocol is part of the Brexit deal the UK signed up to, says the European Union, which blasted Britain's attempt to go back on the agreement as both "illegal and unrealistic."

Currently the Protocol is a hot potato issue amongst the candidates in the race to replace Johnson as the United Kingdom's prime minister – who will be elected by just 160,000 members of the ruling Conservative party by "early September."

Liz Truss, who introduced the bill to scrap the UK government's post-Brexit deal with the EU because it hindered the Good Friday Agreement the UK government made with the leaders of the Republic of Ireland and the constituent region of Northern Ireland, has insisted she would continue with moves she claims are "legal." Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, is in favor of a "negotiated settlement with the EU."

As for what the funding issues mean for science, academics giving evidence to the committee said this means the talent – international scientists working on innovative research at British universities – don't want to stay in the country because it is seen as limiting both to their careers and funding and collaboration opportunities, so they are either taking their research elsewhere or considering doing so.

Researchers based in the UK can't access their grants because according to Horizon Europe rules they must be in an EU or associated country.

A European researcher who spoke to The Register anonymously said: "It doesn't affect one on one collaboration with specific people on the Continent, because you have your money, they have their money – you can collaborate. But when you have to get grants that are based on collaboration, then you can't access the EU collaborations."

As for whether it affects your career, they added: "it depends on what stage you are. If you are not a huge name, the EU has much more funding for early beginners and early career researchers. Not having them for the British is a big hit."

The report itself cites Computational Mechanics Prof Chris Pearce, who is Vice-Principal for Research at the University of Glasgow, as saying: Horizon Europe "is one of the most successful, internationally collaborative research funding frameworks out there, and we are essentially being frozen out of it at the moment.

"Every university will give you examples of projects that are in limbo. We are not being included in new projects because we are seen as a risk. It is well documented that a number of Economic and Social Research Council grant holders are considering whether to take their prestigious awards elsewhere."

The report also explains that the European Research Council said in June it would terminate 115 grants offered to UK-based researchers. Nineteen of the researchers have since agreed to move abroad to keep their funding.

R&D funding targets are key

The report [PDF] offers suggestions on measures to create a more successful science and technology strategy that recognizes "the existing structure of the UK economy and [has] a plan to grow the UK's manufacturing base, if that is the intention."

It also comes six months after the government talked up its £39.8 billion (c $48.2 billion) R&D budget. The idea was to deliver on the government’s 2021 Innovation Strategy, which includes the goal of increasing total R&D investment to 2.4 percent of GDP by 2027.

The government now suggests tapping up the private sector to hit that 2.4 percent target, an idea the committee found "unconvincing."

The committee said: "The government hopes to leverage private sector funding to reach the 2.4 percent target. It has identified areas for reform, such as public procurement, regulations, and pension rules, but these are perennial suggestions and the committee was unconvinced that this attempt would more successful. Industry has been insufficiently engaged with the government's strategy."

Of the target, David Willetts (Baron Willetts) thought that meeting the target would be "a hell of a sight better than 1.7 or 1.8 percent, which is where we are now". However, Willetts noted that it was set to match the OECD average in 2017, which had increased to 2.68 percent by 2020, so the UK "will still be behind comparable countries."

The report recommended "a step change in the level of engagement with industry" to achieve the 2.4 percent metric.

The latest Eurostat figures put the UK (at about 1.8 percent) behind Belgium (3.5 percent), Sweden (3.5 percent), Austria (3.2 percent), Germany (3.1 percent), Denmark (3.0 percent), Finland (2.9 percent), France (2.4 percent), the Netherlands (2.3 percent), Slovenia (2.2 percent), and Czechia (2.0 percent) in R&D spending expressed as a percentage of GDP.

Plan B and competition

The UK, meanwhile, has said it will spend the money currently earmarked for Horizon on a "Plan B", although media reports suggest that "equivalent funding" might not be on its way, with Science minister George Freeman alleged to have been battling with the Treasury over access to this.

Of course that was then: currently, the UK does not have a science minister, with the position left vacant since 7 July when Freeman, along with much of Boris Johnson's government, announced his resignation in a bid to force the then-Prime Minister to resign.

Strategy

"As well as the obvious draw of competitive pay, there needs to be a navigable immigration policy, a reliable regulatory environment, clear career pathways and access to capital, both human and financial, the report said.

"The framing of the talent pool as competition should not, however, lead to a blinkered approach that misses out the key to success in science being internationally collaborative. Efforts to attract and retain talent will struggle to be successful without recognising and accommodating this fact. We should also aim to democratize access to and participation in data science and AI technologies, where possible sharing these advances with the global community."

The committee said it welcomed "the indication that the government is thinking more strategically about UK science and technology and recognizes that the UK cannot be 'world-beating' at everything."

King said there were "a plethora of strategies in different areas with little follow-through and less linking them together." She added: "It is often unclear who is accountable for individual policies, and critically, for delivery."

The report went on to say R&D policy had been hurt by a short-termist outlook as well as "frequent policy changes especially when strategies that are supposed to be long-term are abandoned after a few years."

The Turing institute, meanwhile, cautioned "against any overly competitive framing that could alienate international partners, noting that science is an international, collaborative endeavor."

Among other recommendations in the report, the committee suggested the government must "recognize it cannot reproduce the benefits of international collaborations domestically" and said it should work on its collaborations, and rebuild its reputation as a "reliable partner." It also suggested it clarify its role as a "technology investor," saying it was unclear how government would overcome "risk aversion in R&D investment."

The report also commended current work on a strategic approach to metrics to measure progress – the Office for Science and Technology Strategy has committed to publish metrics by the end of 2022.

Cyber tech types at the NCC Group, meanwhile, said it might help to put together an independent non-executive body tasked with driving forward a long-term science and technology strategy and hold the government (no matter the administration) to account on progress." ®

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