Since Brexit, the UK has aimed to become a science superpower — without taking action to achieve this goal. The most significant recent government initiative has been to delay, not speed up, an unambitious increase in R&D investment, which, in any case, would only take the UK to the middle of the pack.
Advances in artificial intelligence, biotech, and climate tech imperil the UK’s manufacturing and resources-light, services-heavy economy. Our new report, co-authored with Tony Blair and Lord Hague of Richmond, represents a bipartisan effort to jumpstart Science Britain. We propose five key areas of reform.
First, we need a 21st-century state.
While the private sector is adapting to the technology revolution, the public sector lags. Government and public services face costs increasing, service slowing, and the public’s frustration building.
COVID-19 hinted at a new model of the state. Large institutional bureaucracies failed repeatedly, as bespoke models like the Vaccines Task Force succeeded. The UK and other nations must look hard at the failures and ask how the successes could have been ever more effective.
We need to reform how the state invests, recognising that conventional ‘value for money’ paperwork and audits cannot capture the risky, unpredictable outcomes inherent in tech investment As Kate Bingham has highlighted–even at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis–the Vaccines Task Force she headed was hamstrung by a micromanaging and veto-rights culture.
Unlike when building a hospital or funding the police, the state needs to become comfortable with not knowing the outcome of a particular investment ahead of time. Rather than seeking continual control, it must rely on domain experts to assess progress, not paperwork.
The government must also build an effective AI-era infrastructure. A secure, privacy-preserving digital ID will be essential. When we can use our personal devices to travel the world, manage our finances and contact whoever we need, it is odd that we can’t control our own records and interaction with public services.
How the government treats data must change, from mostly being about transparency to looking at areas such as biotech to see how it can build high-value datasets that can drive down the cost of services.
Secondly, education needs to adapt and use, not fear, technology.
We must view ChatGPT as an opportunity, not a threat, enabling the growth of the first AI-literate citizenry. Edtech learning platforms and intelligent tutoring systems, can boost educational attainment and cut the number of working hours that teachers spend on admin, giving them more time to focus on their students.
We need to encourage more people to study STEM. While the number of university undergraduates taking these degrees has increased by 28% over the last 20 years, we are not currently encouraging enough women and girls to take male-dominated subjects like engineering and computing.
Even with a concerted push to encourage young Brits into STEM disciplines, we cannot shape the future without making Britain a go-to place for leading talent overseas. We urge ministers to introduce talent visas for strategic science and technology priority areas, and High Potential Student visas.
Third, we need to reform our investment in science and technology.
Top researchers and institutions deserve better than short-term funding and micromanagement. A refreshed investment approach would see them empowered with longer-term support. The UK should look to learn from the EU’s Horizon Program.
The UK’s current credentialism culture rewards senior figures from old paradigms. Instead, it’s the young with new ideas who should be included and funded. We should recognise that over-dependence on a single model—universities—misses the rich diversity of successful research models, including those from the private sector such as Google’s DeepMind.
Fourth, we need to encourage entrepreneurs.
The UK government has recently made a number of changes such as those to Entrepreneurs Relief and R&D Tax Credits that send a bad signal. Long-discussed reforms for capital markets and issues around dual-class share options remain delayed.
Those looking to start or grow businesses in Britain are beginning to look elsewhere. Competitor countries are increasingly adopting policies to encourage scale-ups in frontier tech, including new funds such as Germany’s Deep Tech & Climate Fund and France’s ambition to create 500 deep-tech firms and 100 unicorns.
Finally, the UK must reconnect with Europe.
We must work with countries across the globe to boost international innovation, not least of all our friends in Europe via partnerships such as Horizon, Euratom, and Copernicus. We must also work with the EU and the US to help set international standards on the responsible use of new technologies, particularly AI, to prevent their misuse by rogue states like China.
The hard reality is that our economic health and our political power have both decreased. Many issues predate Brexit, but we have not done enough to honestly confront these challenges. Unless they are met, we risk being squeezed by technological titans — and find ourselves out of synch with our allies.
James W. Phillips is a former special adviser to the Prime Minister for science and technology and an honorary senior research fellow at University College London.
Benedict Macon-Cooney is Chief Policy Strategist at the Tony Blair Institute.
Luke Stanley is a Policy Adviser to Lord Hague of Richmond.
Bandwidth is CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic cooperation on tech policy. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.