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‘Science Superpower’: the UK Government’s vision for a global science strategy

17 Jan 2023

Last week George Freeman, the Minister of State for Science, Research and Innovation, gave a speech to the Onward think tank setting out the UK Government’s ‘global science strategy’. Here our policy officer, Camilla d’Angelo, takes a look at his speech and what it all might mean.  

In his speech, the Minister outlined what it means for the UK to be a ‘Science Superpower’ and how this should go alongside being an ‘Innovation Nation’, highlighting a series of opportunities and policy reforms needed to achieve this. In the event the UK’s association to the EU Horizon Europe programme continues to be blocked, the Minister outlined an alternative to the scheme, setting out the UK Government’s vision for a UK science strategy. Freeman reiterated the UK Government’s commitment to increasing R&D funding to £20bn per year by 2024/25 and a plan to use this to drive private investment. It is now widely accepted that the UK is likely spending just under 3% of GDP on R&D, and the UK Government is keen to push ahead and extend the target to remain competitive with other research-intensive countries. It is positive to hear a coherent vision from the UK Government on what it wants increased R&D investment to achieve.  

Becoming a Science Superpower is required to solve societal challenges  

The Science Minister highlighted the central role of science and technology in solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges, from water security through to food production and climate change. In particular, he stressed that UK research and innovation can and should have a bigger global role and impact in helping to solving some of these challenges. The view that the UK needs to be a science and technology superpower was also echoed by a panel of R&I experts. 

George Freeman outlined some of the important dimensions of what it means for the UK to become a ‘Science Superpower’ and ‘Innovation Nation’. The UK is widely held to be an academic powerhouse, with its academic science system one of its greatest national strengths. A greater focus on mission-driven research, alongside investment in general purpose technologies, could be a way to encourage the diffusion and adoption of innovations. In addition to this, other important factors include talent, industrial output, culture, soft power and geopolitical influence, many of which the UK performs less well in. 

A focus on place and new institutions 

In order to drive innovation, Freeman highlighted the importance of place and infrastructure. The Government is committed to nurturing regional clusters across the UK, to complement the Golden Triangle. The importance of clusters and local strengths in delivering innovation were also highlighted in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement in 2022. CaSE welcomes the focus on supporting clusters across the UK as part of levelling-up – a key plank of the recommendations in our report ’The Power of Place’. We believe that the benefits of science and technology should be better distributed to all parts of the UK. However, developing clusters will also require a look at environment as well as skills needs, to ensure that different regions can attract talent. CaSE is currently undertaking a piece of work looking at how to deliver the skills needs for a more research intensive economy. 

Developing high quality infrastructure and disruptive institutions will also be crucial. Freeman highlighted the example of the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency (ARIA), a new institution focused on high-risk, high-reward transformative research. This is a welcome commitment, as institutions and processes bringing together discovery science, innovation and multidisciplinary skills are needed to attract global talent. 

Pensions fund and regulatory reforms 

Freeman also outlined areas of policy focus over the coming years, which represent welcome commitments. One area would involve better connecting the City of London with the innovation ecosystem through pensions fund reforms to provide long-term patient capital to enable companies to thrive in the UK. This signals important progress from the Government’s ‘Patient Capital Review’ in accelerating home-grown R&D start-ups by unlocking the potential of pension funds to invest in R&D. CaSE supported the Government’s ‘Patient Capital Review’ in our 2019 report ‘Building on Scientific Strength’. In addition, the Minister stressed that Brexit represents an opportunity for the UK to better harness regulation and procurement to turn the UK into a regulatory ‘test bed’ in a range of new and emerging sectors. In ‘Building on Scientific Strength’ CaSE has previously recommended using Government procurement and regulation to support the development of new and emerging sectors and technologies. 

It is great to see the UK Government set out its strategy for science and innovation. We look forward to seeing more details of the plans announced and to working with the Science Minister and the Government to achieve this so that it benefits everyone across the UK.