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Post-Brexit 'science superpower' UK still hasn't appointed a science minister

And if and when it does, role lacks Cabinet position, complain Lords

The UK's position in science and innovation is under threat from a lack of government focus and financial investment according to a House of Lords committee.

The UK government, which saw new Prime Minister Liz Truss take the reins three weeks ago, is yet to appoint a science minister amid concern the role, even when filled, lacks sufficient influence.

"UK has many strengths in science and innovation, despite chronic underinvestment compared to other OECD countries. We believe that these strengths are under serious threat and that efforts should be redoubled to ensure that the UK reaches and exceeds the target of 2.4 percent of GDP spent on R&D," the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee said in a letter to Truss [PDF].

In a report published in August, the committee had urged whomever became Prime Minister to appoint a dedicated Minister for Science and Innovation to a Cabinet-level position.

"We note, however, that at the time of writing this position has not been filled and any Minister of State appointed is not expected to attend Cabinet. We urge you to reconsider this and appoint a Science Minister to Cabinet at the earliest opportunity," said Baroness Brown of Cambridge, committee chair and former principal of the Engineering Faculty at Imperial College London, in the letter.

Brexit campaign architect Dominic Cummings, who later became former prime minister Boris Johnson's chief advisor, espoused the motto, "Get Brexit Done... then Arpa," in the 2019 general election campaign. He was alluding to the US research and development agency partly credited with the development of the internet and other technologies.

The UK has since sought to mimic Arpa, now Darpa, with its tribute act Aria, standing for Advanced Research & Invention Agency, announced in 2021 with an £800 million (c $850 million) budget earmarked.

In July, the government appointed Matt Clifford, co-founder and CEO of Entrepreneur First, and Ilan Gur, founder and former CEO of innovation non-profit Activate, as chairman and CEO respectively.

In November 2020, the Spending Review set out the government's plan to invest £14.6 billion ($15.6 billion) in R&D in 2021 to 2022, building towards the government's target of 2.4 percent of GDP being spent on R&D across the UK economy by 2027.

Amid complaint about slow progress on Aria, the Lords Science and Technology Committee slammed the government's progress towards its goal of making the UK a "science superpower" by 2030.

Its August report said UK government suggestion that the private sector could contribute to the 2.4 percent target was "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 be more successful. Industry has been insufficiently engaged with the government's strategy."

So far, the decision to leave the EU seems to be dragging the UK away from its ambition to be a science "superpower." The government has so far failed to secure the UK's inclusion in the EU's €95.5 billion (c $91 billion) Horizon research funding program since it left the world's richest trading bloc.

In August, Truss, then foreign secretary, launched a "consultation" with the EU over lack of progress on the source of funding many researchers see as vital. She accused the EU of "repeatedly seeking to politicise vital scientific cooperation by refusing to finalize access to these important programmes." The EU was "in clear breach" of the UK/EU departure agreement, she said.

However, a spokesperson for the European Commission said the Trade and Cooperation Agreement did not provide a specific obligation or deadline for the EU to associate the UK with union programmes.

"The Commission takes note of the UK's request for consultation and will follow up on this in line with the applicable rules, as set out in the TCA," he said. ®

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