The Government has set a course to double the UK’s research capability over ten years, which has the potential to create a more scientifically-enabled economy, drive productivity across the UK and make the UK a partner of choice among the world’s knowledge economies. This long-term strategy can be seen as a counterpoint to Brexit, an investment in UK strength that will see us through turbulent times.
The referendum on leaving the European Union, and elections since, have shone a light on differences in society. For the Government, investment in the UK’s research capability is linked with an attempt to tackle differences in prosperity across the country through the Government’s Industrial Strategy, whose central objective is, ‘to increase living standards and economic growth across the UK’. As the Prime Minister said in her foreword the strategy aims, “to make our United Kingdom a country that truly works for everyone” or, to borrow a phrase from across the dispatch box, “for the many, not the few”.
At the heart of the Industrial Strategy is a manifesto commitment to raise spending on research and development (R&D) as a proportion of GDP to 2.4% across the economy by 2027. The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats made similar manifesto commitments at the last election, with similar intent. Science has therefore become part of a social justice agenda which is likely to persist as a priority through transitions in political power.
“Science has therefore become part of a social justice agenda which is likely to persist as a priority through transitions in political power.”
According to calculations by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, reaching this goal will require doubling R&D spend from £35bn to £65bn over ten years. If achieved, this would represent the most significant shift in the contribution of science and innovation to our economy in decades. It would require not only multi-billions from the public purse, £7bn of which has already been committed, but tens of billions of new investment in the UK from research-intensive industry, large and small. In a time of uncertainty, that is no mean feat, as research-led industry often values long-term stability for innovation to bear fruit.
It seems to me that the input and the output are held in tension. Raising investment in R&D across the economy is an input. Improving living standards and economic growth is an output. There are many strategies one can consider to raise R&D investment in the UK, and Government and UKRI are indeed doing so. Which you choose might depend on whether your priority is the input goal or the output goal.
For example, Foreign Direct Investment into a location of existing research and innovation excellence might yield large gains in reaching the input goal of attracting billions of additional pounds of private R&D. But it might fail the Prime Minister’s social reform challenge in the opening paragraphs of the industrial strategy.
This characterises the challenge of funding research in a way that supports both excellence and prosperity in different places. In an environment of a rising budget for research and innovation, we should be able to accommodate these various needs in a conscious and purposeful way.
“For me it is not enough to see growth in the national economy if your local economy is shrinking.” Theresa May, Prime Minister
A step-change of this scale will, and should, create an effect. What difference do you want to notice in ten years’ time as a result of this effort? Perhaps it might be better career opportunities, discoveries that improve health, wellbeing or the environment, or ingenuity in services delivered well.
Science has value for society in enabling discovery, exploration and innovation that can improve individual wellbeing and national competitiveness. I wonder, though, if there is a risk that while those with the agency to do so will benefit from a more scientificall-yenabled economy, others may feel yet more detached from an accelerating frontier of research and innovation. Therefore, the most important challenge I see is to ensure that everyone is equipped to participate: in research and innovation itself, in debate about how it is used, and as users of innovation. In order to accomplish this: We need a ten-year education mission to complement the R&D investment mission to truly transform the UK’s economy and future.
A mission on education would, quite rightly, supply the talent to deliver and sustain a newly-elevated level of research and innovation in the UK. As Sir John Kingman, Chair of UK Research and Innovation, has said, fifty per cent more research will require fifty per cent more researchers. But another important civic goal of the education mission would be to enable everyone to participate in an accelerating knowledge and innovation economy, as citizens and commentators as well as researchers. This would avoid the widening of perceived or real divisions and may make it more likely that the benefits of research and innovation are felt across society.
A transformation of the nature of the UK economy of this scale will require political commitment. Cross-party consensus on its importance for UK society needs to be backed by cross-Government consensus. Trade, immigration, education, business and Treasury need to be united in their ambition to deliver it, and all departments could adopt new research and innovation into their own work. This is a challenge for those hoping to lead the next administration to embrace.
This article first appeared in the 2019 State of the Relationship report published 19 June 2019.