Slowing investment will make science superpower status less likely, say Patrick Bonnett and colleagues
The budget was a chance to begin implementing the government’s Innovation Strategy. Launching the strategy in July, the government signalled its intention to place science, technology and innovation at the heart of the recovery from the pandemic by supporting the UK’s innovation capabilities.
At the time, the strategy was welcomed as a progressive move to deliver on the government’s stated goal of the UK becoming a “global hub for innovation by 2035”. The strategy will also be an integral part of the pandemic recovery plan, recognising that challenges and opportunities identified in the 2017 Industrial Strategy remain.
Instead of pushing on, however, the government has taken its foot off the accelerator. The 2020 target of lifting public spending on R&D to £22bn per annum by 2024-25—a significant increase from the current level of £14.9bn—has been readjusted to £20bn.
Granted, the new figure remains a serious spending commitment. But a slowing of the pace of planned public investment in science and innovation risks curtailing opportunities to gear in private investment for R&D. This would undermine both the delivery of the Innovation Strategy and the likelihood of reaching the target of raising total R&D intensity to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027.
Pursuing this latter target is critical to driving innovation activities in the UK, and in the process creating high-value jobs and prosperity, and underpinning the levelling-up and net-zero missions. All are central components of the plans to build back better and build back greener.
Close-to-market innovation is central to the new Innovation Strategy. The strategy aims to harness assets nationwide, recognising the UK’s R&D and innovation ecosystem as a means of maximising benefits for local economies and building on local strengths.
Our organisations—the Association for Innovation, Research and Technology Organisations and the UK Science Park Association—represent much of this activity. AIRTO members have a combined turnover of £6.9bn, as well as more than 57,000 scientific and technical staff working at the interface between academia and industry. UKSPA represents more than 130 research campuses, science parks, technology incubators and similar locations that collectively house over 6,000 high-tech companies with 120,000 employees.
Together, these companies and organisations play a fundamental role in driving productivity. They include hotbeds of innovation operating in cities, such as the Met Office, and hubs of activity in non-urban areas, such as Orkney’s European Marine Energy Centre.
The government must keep science and technology at the heart of the UK’s recovery from the pandemic by supporting the UK’s innovation capabilities. It should review the opportunity to restore the £22bn commitment for 2024-25. And smart deployment of the funds announced in the budget could strengthen two particular areas of the Innovation Strategy.
First, international collaboration needs more support. In particular, the UK should take steps to ensure that its researchers and institutions continue to play a pivotal part in EU programmes such as Horizon Europe. The nation’s international standing in science and technology will be damaged if we lose ground in our relationships with collaborators in EU member states.
Second, the government should boost investment in the innovation ecosystem. The UK is home to many non-profit industrial research organisations, such as Campden BRI, which serves the food industry. They lie at the innovation ecosystem’s foundations and have a critical role to play in the levelling-up agenda by offering living labs, test beds and demonstrators. However, they remain undercapitalised. For the UK’s innovation ecosystem to be truly world-leading by 2035, this underinvestment must be reversed.
The climate and demographic crises—arguably the world’s most pressing concerns—offer global trade opportunities for the UK, with its world-class expertise and international reputation for innovation and entrepreneurship. Such big missions require the nurture and delivery of a colossal amount of innovation. The Innovation Strategy signalled a fresh commitment, shaped by what the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us about science and technology’s power to meet societal challenges and transform lives.
The Treasury should take every opportunity to review its commitments to science and innovation, considering the national economic conditions in the year ahead, to ensure that the UK remains globally competitive to fulfil its ambition of achieving science and technology superpower status.
Patrick Bonnett is chair of the UK Science Parks Association and Chief Development Officer of the National Innovation Centre: Ageing. Steve Yianni and Jane Gate are president and executive director, respectively, of the Association of Innovation, Research and Technology Organisations
This article also appeared in Research Fortnight