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Priorities for Labour: ‘The nation needs an ambitious vision’

 Image: da-kuk, via Getty

Our third look at the new government's task covers national strategy, private investment and inequality

Allan Nixon: Science minister can pick up where he left off

How many Research Professional readers did a double-take when they learned that Patrick Vallance was the science minister? I certainly did. The news came only hours after confirmation that the fledgling Department of Science, Innovation and Technology would be retained, with Peter Kyle at the helm.

Best known for his pandemic press conferences, as chief scientific adviser, Vallance was the single biggest influence on the last government’s science strategy. The Science and Technology Framework published in March 2023 focused on building “strategic advantage” in five technologies—artificial intelligence, quantum, engineering biology, semiconductors and future telecoms.

The Framework had its flaws—the case for prioritising future telecoms is weak, for example. And despite the attempt to target activity on a handful of critical areas, the government continued to spread investments too broadly to achieve its laudable goals.

But fundamentally, it was the right approach. At its core was the understanding that countries leading in frontier technologies such as AI will be more prosperous and secure.

Historically, the UK has historically been poor at leveraging its world-beating R&D. UK R&D expenditure makes up around 5 per cent of the world’s research resources, yet our global share of value-added output from R&D-intensive industries has fallen to 2.6 per cent. Crudely, this means the country is getting out half of what it is putting in compared with the rest of the world.

The strategy set a course for fixing that, but there is much more to do. Vallance might argue that any missteps since he left government last April stemmed from execution rather than strategy. Now that he’s in the ministerial chair, that excuse won’t be available.

Allan Nixon is head of science and technology at the think tank Onward

Naomi Weir: Give business a platform for investment

The new government’s headline appointments show the seriousness of its plans for science. Shadow post-holders, including Peter Kyle at the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), have gone straight into departments. And those tasked with Patrick Vallance’s induction as science minister probably feel they can cut the intro and get straight down to business.

At the foundations, to give businesses the confidence to invest, the government must set a clear ambition and a create predictable environment. Delivering the promised long-term R&D budgets and setting the direction of travel for the regulatory environment, not least on artificial intelligence and data, will be key. National assets such as universities and Catapult centres should be given a firm budgetary footing and engaged as partners in the design and delivery of industrial strategy.

Second, we need to harness existing innovation and technology, from digital tech to management practices. Accelerating adoption has extraordinary potential to boost productivity, improve public services and address labour market challenges. Policy here needs clear ownership and strategy—DSIT, with Kyle’s vision for a cross-government leadership role, is its natural home.

Finally, now is the time to kill once and for all the sense that the UK is good at research but fails to convert that into value. From procurement and planning, to access to finance, it’s critical to reshape the environment so that it makes commercial sense for the private sector to exploit ideas at scale. The existing Science and Technology Framework presents a credible outline. Given his role in creating it, having Vallance at the helm is a head start we weren’t expecting.

Naomi Weir is director of innovation and technology at the Confederation of British Industry

Jim McDonald: Go big on industrial strategy

I am pleased that chancellor Rachel Reeves has declared economic growth the UK’s “national mission”. The engineering profession wants to see the new government take a holistic, long-term approach to complex challenges such as climate change and slow growth, creating strong policies on which to build sustainable economic growth, helping to improve lives. 

The nation needs an ambitious vision that draws on our strengths in engineering, innovation, research and manufacturing, underpinned by sustained policies that align actions across regulation, procurement, planning, funding, infrastructure, technology adoption, and a national strategy for the engineering and technology workforce.

The UK already has a foothold in areas like artificial intelligence, quantum and biotechnology. Adopting a long-term industrial strategy will help to leverage our impressive engineering and technology capabilities in these and other areas.

The National Engineering Policy Centre says the UK should aim to lead the G7 in R&D intensity, supporting and capitalising on its exceptional research base and leveraging private investment. We should also boost support for close-to-market R&D and demonstrator projects, as these are key stepping stones to commercialisation.

The UK should be a place where high-tech, innovative start-ups get access to the finance, facilities, infrastructure and talent they need to grow. Such companies are catalysts for change, helping to drive prosperity that can be shared across all regions, communities and groups in society.

Laying the foundations of productivity, economic growth and societal benefit requires policies that will work well beyond the next parliament. A strong and consistent industrial strategy is critical to the future success of this country; the engineering community stands ready to help.  

Jim McDonald is president of the Royal Academy of Engineering 

Melanie Smallman: Embracing technology must not create inequality

Keir Starmer’s Labour government showed its commitment to science and innovation in its first few hours, appointing former chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance as science minister and expanding the remit of the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) to include “transforming public service and fuelling economic growth”. Science should be all set, then.

The long-term funding commitments promised will bring much-needed stability. But given the real-term cuts to science funding over past decades, there will be pressure to increase the pot. Maintaining access to Horizon Europe, as well as developing partnerships and joint funding vehicles, will be key to leveraging UK public money. And somehow, stability needs to be extended to higher education, wobbling with the current funding model.

DSIT’s trickiest task will be in its role as the centre of digital expertise and delivery. Digital innovation is a key driver of inequality in the UK, bringing growth to hub cities while leaving regional and non-university towns to make do with the low paid, insecure platform jobs that their neighbours have created.

As machines replace people, tax returns fall, making public services even harder to fund. All this means that any roll-out of artificial intelligence and digital technologies across government is likely to bring DSIT into conflict with other departments’ missions, particularly around levelling up.

Evaluating and monitoring the equality implications of new technologies will be vital. Starmer’s council of the regions and nations needs to be on the case; replicating the Blair and Brown governments’ focus on regional innovation and growth strategies might help.

Melanie Smallman is professor of science and technology studies at University College London and a former scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs