Science and Technology Superpower
The report rightly highlights areas where the UK must improve to achieve its ambition of becoming a science and technology superpower, whether you define that in terms of the amount of innovation generated, the number of patents, ideas or even Nobel prizes, the value of ideas commercialised or simply our influence. The report highlights the areas that are key to success: increasing R&D funding; forging closer ties between academia and industry and between different parts of government, industry and academia; changing the way visas are charged for; and supporting start-ups to scale up. But without action, “science and technology superpower” remains merely a slogan. The Government must turn pledges into progress if the UK is to strengthen its position as a global leader in innovation.
However, even if we succeed in these areas, the UK faces structural challenges in the size of its domestic market, in access to capital markets for innovation in the City, in talent, in commercialisation expertise and in other resources, which the report acknowledges by rightly highlighting priority areas that we need to focus on. Our venture ecosystem, while thriving, remains small-scale in global comparison, although there have been laudable recent attempts to ramp this up by working with larger investors such as sovereign wealth and pension funds and insurers.
Our ageing population means taxation policies must account for the needs of tomorrow as well as today if we want sustainable public funding for R&D and education. We must pick our battles in areas where we can differentiate ourselves and lead. Therefore, to get bang for our buck, we should welcome a focus on areas such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, space and satellite technology, fintech, energy transition technologies such as nuclear, renewables and battery storage, and precision medicine and life sciences.
The report could have gone further in articulating how the UK can harness its advantages of agility, expertise and a focus on global impact to overcome disadvantages of scale. We showed what is possible by developing a world-class vaccine at record pace. By being more flexible and sandboxing regulations more, attracting capital from overseas and matching it with our own large domestic investment sources, and harnessing government procurement in a smarter way, we can still edge ahead. Our time zone and legal and regulatory systems enable the UK to become a launch pad for new technologies and be a leader that can attract the finance needed to make firms global without their having to shift their base abroad.
It saddens me that we have not sufficiently built on the success of the Vaccine Taskforce led so ably by Kate Bingham, or gone further—simplifying regulation and procurement where we could have to achieve greater freedoms for pioneers and innovators to build world-class supply chains based on science and tech. I ask the Minister what we are doing to build on this success as part of our science superpower strategy. With vision, the right targeted investments and, crucially, the right culture, we can navigate the challenges of size through global leadership in emerging sectors.
In conclusion, while the report highlights actions the Government must take to achieve their bold ambition, the UK must go further in playing to its strengths, particularly by being more nimble and having STEM-savvy, trained regulators and policymakers. By targeting support for sectors where we can differentiate globally, providing access to talent and long-term funding, and enabling an agile approach to regulation and policy-making, the UK can overcome its disadvantages of scale and smaller market to cement its role as a pioneering science and innovation leader on the world stage.
If we match rhetoric with resource, “science and technology superpower” can become more than a slogan, but it will require the right attitude and culture. As it says in Zechariah chapter 4, verse 6:
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty—you will succeed because of my Spirit”.
May the UK have that plucky spirit, which has served it well in the past and can do so again in the future.