The development of a vaccine typically takes a decade. But when the UK was faced with a lethal global pandemic, this process was expedited to a matter of months. This kind of successful “moonshot” mission might be just what we need to reach net zero.
As chief scientific advisor to the UK government between 2018-2023, Patrick Vallance had a front row seat for this feat of rapid scientific innovation. As the founder of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, Vallance, alongside the venture capitalist, Kate Bingham, oversaw the successful development and distribution of the coronavirus jab across the country – one of the standout success stories of the UK’s pandemic response.
And it’s no secret that rapid scientific innovation and huge national efforts are going to be essential to tackling the climate crisis. Time is running out. This week, it was announced that 2023 is set to be the hottest year since records began. Over the past 12 months, temperatures have averaged 1.43 degrees above pre-industrial levels (that’s very close to the 1.5 degree limit that was agreed in Paris in 2015).
Vallance is clear that there are lessons to be learned from the pandemic – in particular around vaccine development – and translated into government efforts on climate change. In a new podcast from the Carbon Trust, Net Zero: What’s innovation got to do with it, shared exclusively prior to its release today with The Green Transition, Vallance shares seven lessons:
1. Have a clear, time-bound, measurable objective.
2. Put in place a single point of accountable, empowered leadership and truly make it empowered.
3. Bring experts into government quickly (within weeks, not months or years).
4. Bring together an approach that includes R&D, manufacturing, and procurement.
5. Be prepared to help public-private partnerships and bring sectors together to make something happen.
6. Be prepared to take portfolio risk and accept that things will fail. Don’t view the failure as a waste of public money.
7. And all times when you’re doing this, think about the legacy.
If Labour enters Number 10 after the next election, the party could do well to take this kind of advice for Keir Starmer’s supposedly laser-focused, “mission-oriented” government. A clean energy grid by 2030 stands as one of the party’s five priorities to be achieved with ruthless efficiency, reforming zeal and cross-departmental efforts. Or that’s the story, anyway. Starmer doesn’t seem like the type of politician with an appetite to break with the normal civil service and Whitehall protocols, nor to push back against orthodoxy and take fiscal risks. This could leave him beset by the usual burdensome, bureaucratic processes and encumbered by the Treasury’s normal delay-by-default.
As a scientist by trade, Vallance is keen to point out that to those outside of his profession, science can often be seen as dealing in absolutes. But that isn’t always the case. “Science corrects itself, and of course the same is true of climate,” Vallance says on the podcast.
“[In science] there are always uncertainties. Those uncertainties shouldn’t stop decision making, but it’s important to be aware of them,” he says.
Vallance is keen to assert that accepting failure is vital to tackling major scientific crises. And that means nurturing an appetite for experimentation and failing upwards in usually risk-averse governments and the public sector.
Vallance insists that due to the existential threat that climate change poses “we can’t take a normal approach. We have to have some risk.” But to do this will require a change in the government’s mindset. Failed innovations are often seen as “the most monumental waste of public money” when under scrutiny from spending watchdogs such as the National Audit Office, or the Public Accounts Committee. This, he says, can often drive conservative behaviour among decision-makers.
“We have to get over that”, Vallance explains, “and that needs leadership. It needs acceptance of that risk profile upfront.” He adds that when working to develop innovative solutions at scale “most things you touch will fail.”
“That’s the price of a successful innovation”, he says.
Vallance’s comments are prescient. With the Covid Inquiry ongoing, the aftershocks of the pandemic are still being felt within the UK policy landscape. But time is of the essence. Vallance and his team took less than a year to do something which usually takes ten. His seven lessons might just help the UK do the same for net zero.
You can find the Carbon Trust’s new podcast, Net Zero: What’s innovation got to do with it, on all podcast platforms, or by following this link. Their first episode – 7 lessons from the Covid crisis, with Sir Patrick Vallance, is out now.
This article was originally published as part of Spotlight’s weekly Green Transition newsletter. Subscribe here.