UK science produces enormous value for society. We led the world in developing an effective Covid-19 vaccine, building on a strong base in biological science that had been cultivated over decades. British physicists pioneered radar during the Second World War to protect the country from attack. From the steam engine to machine learning, science has fuelled the creation of countless jobs and turbocharged our economy.
Science and technology will be essential in delivering the advances that underpin a green and digital future. Britain has a wealth of internationally recognised strengths across a range of areas of scientific excellence. Yet, in a changing world, this can no longer be taken for granted – and the current system that supports science is severely hampered by sticking plaster solutions and stop-start investment. Providing stability through long-term thinking is not only craved by researchers, innovators and the investors the UK is seeking to attract, but is also necessary as we face some of the biggest challenges ever seen on a global scale.
That’s why a long-term vision for science is needed to help Britain flourish.
The good news is that these challenges translate into a treasure trove of opportunity. There is enormous innovation and skilled jobs potential created by the development of new technologies and delivering a low-carbon, sustainable future. Research and innovation already drive productivity gains across all sectors of our economy, and new scientific breakthroughs will enable people to do even more with their time and skills. Making the most of this opportunity requires an integrated and aligned science system that fosters and rewards collaboration, interdisciplinarity and plurality. Positioning Britain as a destination for leading-edge research and development (R&D) investment in forward-leaning sectors will be key to building a renewed post-Brexit role on the global stage.
Money, of course, is important. Government increases in science funding are always welcome, and they certainly deliver bang for their buck, with every pound publicly invested in R&D being roughly doubled by the private sector (with far higher returns in science-intensive sectors like biomedical research). When building on local strengths, intelligent investment in science can drive growth in every nation and every region of the UK. Take the semiconductor cluster in Wales, which contributes over £170m to the economy a year and supports over 2,000 stable full time equivalent jobs.
But the uncertainty inherent in the gruelling cycle of Whitehall budgets and spending reviews damages confidence in the UK as a place to do business, and hampers our ability to pursue the big ideas that improve lives and creates opportunity.
Britain faces a raft of massive generational challenges – every one of which will require a high-functioning scientific system to tackle them. An ageing population, climate change, and biodiversity loss will all put increasing strain on our national institutions. Challenging geopolitical trends, coupled with technological advances, are creating a range of novel national security threats – which will require a deep base of UK scientific and technological expertise to understand and counter. Resilience to disease, natural disaster and other unexpected risks require a resilient and flexible network of domestic expertise.
This cannot be created on the fly. The rapid development and deployment of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, for instance, was only made possible through 30 years of investment in the underpinning science of coronaviruses, vaccine technology, and manufacturing processes.
Clearly, to withstand the challenges of the future, we need to be building a system, now, that will have the knowledge, capacity and skills to adapt and respond in a changing world.
To meet the scale of such ambition, we need to be asking now what the UK science system of 2040 should look like – and how it can be achieved. This needs to look across the whole of the science system, including industry, non-profits and universities. It needs to incorporate a plan for how the UK will build the infrastructure necessary for top-level scientific research and consider how the science system operates as part of the larger global scientific community. Perhaps most important: it needs to recognise the role of people and talent, ensuring we have the right people in the right place, and equipping our population with a broad and balanced skillset which is adaptable to future jobs and processes.
It also means removing barriers to international collaboration. Now that our participation in the Horizon Europe research programme has been finalised, we must turn our attention to attracting the best and brightest to work and study in Britain. Right now, researchers who want to bring their skills here face upfront visa costs up to ten times higher than in other leading science nations, with fees set to rise even further next year. This essentially boils down to a punitive tax on talent for businesses and research organisations; we must immediately reduce these fees if we want to show we are open for business.
Society faces great challenges and great opportunities. The UK already has a strong foundation to build on to meet these – but that foundation requires a clear vision to enable everyone to work together to make that happen.
It was encouraging to see a commitment to a long-term science strategy echoed in Labour’s National Policy Forum documents. A meaningful plan for research and innovation should rightly sit at the heart of every party’s agenda for government.