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Same country, different worlds

Recent government publications paint starkly different pictures of UK research and innovation, says Sarah Chaytor

A month after it came into being, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology’s publication of a Science and Technology Framework sent a positive signal about the government’s commitment to research and innovation. The framework envisions a rose-tinted future for UK R&I based on 10 headline ambitions. 

In contrast, a government-commissioned report by Paul Nurse, published the same day, sounds the alarm about the “danger” to research, development and innovation posed by underinvestment by successive governments. The review’s unflinching analysis of weaknesses in the R&I landscape jars with the framework’s emphasis on “signalling UK strengths”. 

Nurse’s assessment is stark in the light of the framework’s silence on additional investment, especially when all eyes are on the £1.6 billion intended for the EU’s Horizon Europe programme or equivalent programmes recently reclaimed by the Treasury. Others have noted the framework’s silence on association with Horizon Europe and welcomed Nurse’s statement that association is required. 

The review is a counterweight to assurances that the UK is investing more than ever in R&D. Nurse points instead to a £4.2bn annual deficit in university research funding, plugged from unpredictable sources such as overseas student fees. 

In other words, UK research is on a far-from-stable footing—yet long-term stability is essential to becoming a science superpower. Anyone hoping the framework would set out how such issues will be addressed has probably been disappointed. There is little sign of any policy enthusiasm for grasping the research deficit nettle, but Nurse’s discussion of financial sustainability is a reminder that public investment is not just about the amount of money, but how it is spent.

Significant problems

Nurse identifies other “significant problems”, including policy turmoil, bureaucracy and a lack of fluidity in the system. For Nurse, “permeability of ideas, technologies and people” is vital to increasing private sector investment in R&D. Yet the framework barely mentions this, despite its stated ambition for business to play its part in ensuring investment “matches the scale of the Science and Technology Superpower ambition”—albeit that this scale remains carefully undefined.

Permeability has other benefits. Nurse’s recommendation that government departments should do more to incorporate R&I into policy development is welcome. Achieving this will depend on increasing the flow of people and ideas between academia and the public policy system, which in turn requires greater investment in the connective infrastructure that enables knowledge mobilisation.

This need is greatest at local and regional level. The review urges universities to engage more with local businesses and communities. But the framework has little to say on regional activity, beyond restating the 2022 Levelling Up white paper’s pledge to increase public investment outside of London and the south-east by 40 per cent.

Also disconcerting is the absence of any reference to the social sciences, arts and humanities. In the light of recent analysis by science policy experts James Phillips and Paul Nightingale questioning the UK’s standing in cutting-edge areas such as artificial intelligence and systems biology, disciplinary breadth may be one of the UK research system’s few remaining strengths, as Nurse recognises. The social sciences, arts and humanities make a vital contribution to UK R&I, including to multidisciplinary approaches to societal challenges.

Perhaps such comparisons, while irresistible, are unfair. The framework is a signal of intent to other government departments; Nurse offers a deeper investigation. And if the framework is all sunlit uplands while the review fixes its sights on slippery slopes and steep drops, they at least agree on the importance of R&I to the UK’s prosperity and wellbeing. 

This is reflected in both reports’ recognition of the need for a long-term strategy for investment in technologies. This is fundamental: as Sarah Main and Graeme Reid wrote in these pages last year, becoming a science superpower requires ”an arc of ambition that spans generations of political leaders”. Most encouraging is both publications’ message that R&I needs a cross-government approach. If ever there was a time to translate this from rhetoric to action, it is now. 

And there’s the rub: it is not just that we have been offered two different accounts of the UK’s current standing, but that they point to different routes to becoming a scientific superpower. We know where the government wants to be by 2030. We know very little about how it intends to get there.  

Sarah Chaytor is director of strategy and policy at University College London 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight