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Science ministry must avoid being all R and no D

Department is Conservatives’ latest effort to square industrial strategy with free-market ideology, says Kieron Flanagan

One consequence of the creation of a standalone Department for Science, Innovation and Technology with its own cabinet minister has been a wave of historical comparisons from people like me. Initially, these tended to be with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills created by prime minister Gordon Brown in 2007. 

However, it’s starting to look as if a better reference point for DSIT might be John Major’s creation of the Office of Science and Technology (OST) in 1992. This was a mini-department within the Cabinet Office, headed by the chief scientific adviser and with a cabinet minister in the person of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. 

The OST reflected the Thatcherite aversion to active industrial policy, often disparaged as picking winners. At the same time, it established a UK Technology Foresight programme to set priorities for research spending, based in the idea that innovation involved pushing scientific discoveries through to the market.  

Technology Foresight failed to stick, but faith in the science-push model, aided by increasing efforts to ‘transfer’ knowledge to industry, remained dominant until the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, and in times of austerity, we’ve seen tentative movement back to investment in civil technological development, with the creation of Innovate UK and its network of Catapult centres. The new Advanced Research and Invention Agency is likely to sit in this space, albeit with better public relations. 

Alongside this came increased interest in industrial strategy. Science minister David Willetts championed Eight Great Technologies, while Theresa May and her business secretary Greg Clark spoke of grand challenges and modern industrial strategy. 

Such language, however, sits uncomfortably with Thatcher-inspired politicians. Boris Johnson’s government largely stopped talking about industrial strategy, and Rishi Sunak seems unlikely to revive it. Yet the government clearly still wants to set technological priorities. The new department launched with a glossy video in which secretary of state Michelle Donelan extols the chance to bring the “five technologies of the future” together in one portfolio. 

In 2021, concerns over reliance on imported high technology such as advanced semiconductors drove the Johnson administration to create the Office of Science and Technology Strategy (OSTS) in the Cabinet Office to set priorities in the context of international competition. 

There is, then, a tension between the desire to direct and the instinct towards laissez-faire innovation policy. OSTS was missing from the initial briefing on the new departmental arrangements, but Number 10 confirms that it will go into DSIT alongside the Government Office for Science. 

Shifting responsibility

At the time of writing, it is unclear whether responsibility for supporting the National Science and Technology Council, a cabinet committee chaired by the prime minister, will also shift to DSIT and Donelan.

OSTS’s priority-setting function was kept carefully separate from the quasi-independent advisory role of the Government Office for Science, even though GO-Science does a lot of the analytical work for OSTS. Moving the OSTS into the new department, alongside the implementation machinery of UK Research and Innovation, makes sense but it will surely make it impossible to keep the roles of OSTS and GO-Science distinct. 

Concern with national security and technological self-sufficiency were not major drivers of policy back in the early 1990s. But they have clearly influenced the creation of the OSTS and, presumably, the choice to locate it in the Cabinet Office, close to the national security machinery. The move to DSIT could make it harder to coordinate science and technology policy with strategic concerns, but it could also free priority-setting from being overly driven by perceived—and inevitably politicised—threats to sovereignty and security.

It’s possible the UK is moving full circle, from tentative efforts to rebuild an activist technology and industrial policy back to a naive science-push belief that technological priorities can be realised merely by guiding UKRI-funded basic research, leaving development and application to take care of themselves. 

This does not mean there will be no picking winners—no government has any choice but to make technological bets. But it could mean that systematic, transparent and accountable discussions about priorities happen largely at the research stage, while technological winners depend on the whims of ministers, advisers and lobbyists. The problems with the OneWeb satellite system and Britishvolt battery factory show the dangers of such an approach. 

Kieron Flanagan is professor of science and technology policy at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, University of Manchester

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight