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‘We’re not a science superpower,’ admits UK science minister


Nation risks becoming “small science powerhouse rather than a global science superpower”, says George Freeman

Science minister George Freeman has said the UK is not a science superpower and warned the country will not become one until it is also an ‘innovation nation’.

During an event by think tank Onward on 2 February, Freeman called the UK a scientific “powerhouse” that wins awards and produces world-class science.

But the country risks remaining a “small science powerhouse rather than a global science superpower”, he said, unless it makes strategic changes in leveraging industry investment into science, technology and engineering.

He said the UK needs to attract more industrial R&D and “strategically shift” to becoming a place that “feels like a science, technology, research and innovation economy” instead of a service-based economy.

“We are not a science superpower yet,” Freeman said, adding that “we won’t be one unless we are also an innovation nation.”

“I think the industrial money really does matter and if we take our eye off that ball, we will end up being a small science powerhouse rather than a global science superpower.”

Government communications have so far variously cited unleashing, cementing, strengthening and restoring the UK’s position as a science superpower.

Science superpower checklist

According to Freeman, the UK must do five things to become a science superpower:

  • Have world-class science, which Freeman said it does already.
  • Have global impact by identifying and solving problems, such as preventing the ice caps from melting or cleaning up the oceans.
  • Build global talent paths so the country best can work internationally and attract the best talent from around the world.
  • Attract more industrial R&D.
  • Defend the values of great international science, which includes having respect for free thinking.

Freeman went on to describe the importance of ongoing mapping of R&D clusters around the country, which he thinks will help drive private investment into UK science.

“If we can get the 30 clusters all around the country to grow,” he said, “then we’ll be seen internationally…as an innovation nation…somewhere everyone wants to invest.”

A version of this article appeared in Research Fortnight