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7 August 2023updated 08 Sep 2023 11:55am

The Research Brief: why the science department should be exempt from Treasury rules

Your weekly dose of policy thinking.

By Spotlight

Welcome to the Research Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, brings you the pick of recent publications from the think tank, charity and NGO world. To see more editions of the Research Brief click here.

What are we talking about this week? Wired for Success: Reforming Whitehall to Support Science and Technology, the latest report on UK science and tech from Onward.

Onward, who? The centre-right think tank was set up by the Conservative brain-box Neil O’Brien and Will Tanner, and is now headed by Sebastian Payne, formerly of the Financial Times and wannabe Tory MP. To be fair to Payne, he’s joined an efficient feeder organisation for the upper echelons of sensible Conservative power-brokers: O’Brien is a health minister and Tanner is Rishi Sunak’s deputy chief of staff.

What’s the gist? “Dominic Cummings was right!”, at least that’s the headline of the write-up Payne gave the report in the i newspaper last week (although it’s Onward’s head of tech Allan Nixon who is listed as the main author, along with Anastasia Bektimirova and Anna Dickinson.)

Brexit or Barnard Castle? Thankfully, neither. They mean Cummings was right when he diagnosed the UK’s science, tech and innovation landscape as “needing improvement”.

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Meaning what exactly? Basically: government = slow, cumbersome, bloated, risk-averse; tech sector = fast, agile, lean, entrepreneurial. The dead weight of Whitehall bureaucracy and the Treasury’s tight reins are slowing the UK down. In AI, semiconductors, quantum and other sectors, the government has made some progress, but we should be spending more (3.5 per cent of GDP on R&D, in fact, Onward says – the current target is 2.4 per cent), and the science secretary should be given more room for manoeuvre, like a kind of Westminster version of a Silicon Valley venture capitalist.

Like a super-secretary? If you like. And the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (Dsit) should be exempt from the usual spanners in the works around procurement, planning and endless business-case reviews. Universities should come under Dsit’s purview as well, rather than the Department for Education.

It all sounds a bit “move fast and break things”. Yes, but the emphasis is on moving fast, not breaking things. This is all, presumably, music to the Science Secretary Michelle Donelan’s ears – Wired for Success also says Dsit should be “exempted from lengthy and bureaucratic spending controls to ensure the department can move with the intended ‘agility and pace’”.

What about other government departments? Well, there’s the rub. Plenty of other ministries would kill to get those kinds of freedoms. Department for Transport projects are notorious for delays caused by years of wrangling with departmental officialdom and the bean-counters at the Exchequer. The health service’s capital spend has been woefully neglected in recent years and the NHS moves with anything but agility and pace. In February the Financial Times reported that Michael Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities would have its whole capital spending budget monitored and signed off by the Treasury: not so much Wired for Success as Programmed for Failure.

What else? There are radical proposals aplenty in Onward’s report, but that hasn’t stopped it getting top-level endorsements from no fewer than ten former ministers, including David “Two Brains” Willetts, Margot James and Matt Hancock (no sniggering at the back).

In a sentence? If we want the UK to be a “science superpower” then we need more investment and less Whitehall meddling to deliver projects at speed.

Read the full report from Onward here.

If you have a report, briefing paper or a piece of research that you’d like featured in the Research Brief, get in touch at spotlight@newstatesman.co.uk.

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