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A new report by the UK Science and Technology Committee has concluded there is an urgent need to develop a strong implementation plan for the government’s ambitions.

The UK Government has been warned that an unfocused UK science and technology strategy risks the term “science superpower” becoming an empty slogan.

Britain has made serious commitments and provided welcome ambitions for the future of science and technology, the committee said, and it recognised their importance to the societal health and economic prosperity of the UK.

However, in a new report, the committee has raised concerns that the UK will struggle to fulfil the potential of its science and technology to contribute to a high-tech, high-growth economy due to the lack of an implementation plan.

Suggestions have been made that whoever takes up the role of the next Prime Minister must maintain the commitment to R&D funding and the focus on science and technology– “it will be fundamental to economic growth and improving public services,” the committee said.

The chair of the committee commented: “The government has high ambitions for science and technology, which the committee welcomes. Science and technology are crucial to the UK’s development and economic prosperity. Even with significantly lower spending than comparable countries, the UK’s excellent science base punches above its weight and can provide the tools to tackle major challenges like net zero.

“But science policy has been far from perfect. R&D is a long-term endeavour which requires sustained focus and an implementation plan. But we found a plethora of strategies in different areas with little follow-through and less linking them together.

“There are numerous bodies and organisations with unclear or apparently overlapping responsibilities, and more are being added in the form of the National Science and Technology Council and the Office for Science and Technology Strategy. It is often unclear who is accountable for individual policies, and critically, for delivery.”

Commitments from the government include aiming to become a “science and tech superpower” by 2030, boost spending on R&D to 2.4% of GDP (the 2017 average for OECD countries) by 2027, and significantly increase in public funding for R&D.

In the past, science policy has been “let down” by “short-termism and a proliferation of disparate strategies without an overarching vision,” the committee suggested.

They added that many government bodies currently have unclear remits and interactions, which means that it is often unclear who owns a specific policy. The committee added that, at the time of writing their report, there was no science minister, which “further blurs lines of accountability”.

The committee chair continued: “The government has suggested areas of reform to increase private sector investment in R&D such as public procurement for innovation, regulatory reform, and R&D tax credits. But these areas are perennial suggestions. New ideas – and specific details – developed with business are needed if this time the outcomes are to be different.

“On the international stage, the failure to associate to Horizon Europe, and recent cuts to Official Development Assistance, have damaged the UK’s reputation. The UK cannot be a science superpower in isolation; relationships must be repaired.”

The committee provided some key recommendations for areas that the UK Government should prioritise its focus. These are:

  • Better define its science and technology strategy.
  • Explain what the “own-collaborate-access” framework means.
  • Repair international relationships.
  • Set out its specific reforms.

The chair added: “UK science and technology remains strong and respected around the world, but they will not deliver their full potential for the UK with an inconsistent and unclear science policy from government.

“A new administration must retain the ambition for science and technology and develop a clear plan for delivery.”

 

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