Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am delighted to introduce for debate this Science and Technology Committee report on the UK as a science and technology superpower. Before I start, I declare my interests as a non-executive director of two UK technology companies: Ceres Power and Frontier IP.
The Science and Technology Committee is highly engaged, and I thank everyone on the committee at the time for their significant contributions to the final report. As ever, huge credit is due to the committee’s staff, our former clerk George Webber, Thomas Hornigold and Cerise Burnett-Stuart, who did so much of the hard work in managing the consultation and the witnesses and in preparing the report.
The committee conducted a broad-ranging inquiry into the UK science and technology ecosystem, centred around the Government’s ambition to make the UK a science superpower by 2030. The inquiry considered: defining UK priorities as part of a science and technology strategy; international aspects of the strategy; the organisational structure of UK science, including the roles of UKRI, government departments, Cabinet sub-committees and the Civil Service; the target to boost R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP; and the role of government as an investor in technology companies.
The inquiry also motivated a shorter follow-up inquiry into the people and skills in STEM, concluding with a letter to Ministers, to which we may also refer in this debate. The inquiry ran from February to July 2022, taking evidence from a wide range of UK and international science policy experts, researchers, public research establishments, universities, private companies, start-ups and technology investors. We also heard from civil servants, chief scientific advisers—including Sir Patrick Vallance and Dame Angela McLean—the chief executive of UKRI, research council heads and Ministers.
I will summarise the key messages from our report. There is a strong consensus that science, technology and innovation have a key role to play in the delivery of economic growth, improved public services and strategic international advantage. It is clear that the UK still has a strong science and technology base to build on. When the report was written, some welcome steps had already been taken, such as setting the 2.4% target, increasing funding for UKRI in government departments and establishing new bodies like the National Science and Technology Council—NSTC—as a sub-committee of the Cabinet, and the Office for Science and Technology Strategy, the OSTS. My apologies in advance for the acronym soup that this speech will now turn into.
However, the report identified many key concerns about the implementation and delivery of a science strategy, many of them familiar—indeed, some we might even call perennial problems. The first that concerned us was that the “science superpower by 2030” slogan was vague and without specific outcomes. We did not know what being a science superpower was intended to feel like. How would it be different?
Although numerous sectoral strategies exist across government, they did not appear to fit into a clear, prioritised plan. The UK cannot be “world-beating” at everything. We urged clarity about which capabilities the UK wanted to develop domestically and where it would collaborate or access. These debates remain lively, with the announcement of £900 million for exascale computing and the debate over a sovereign AI model, for example. Linked to this was the lack of a joined-up international approach. We cannot be a science superpower in isolation—collaboration and scientific openness are fundamental—but the UK remained out of Horizon Europe, and other changes, such as the reduction in ODA support, high visa costs and complex processes, risk the UK’s reputation as a destination that welcomes top international science talent and as a desirable partner in international collaborations.
On increasing complexity and lack of clarity, the committee felt that bodies like the NSTC and OSTS would provide strategic direction, but their interactions with other key bodies like UKRI were unclear and risked adding to bureaucracy. There has been inconsistency and short-term thinking, which is anathema to R&D and developing new sectors of the economy. This is exemplified by the scrapping of the industrial strategy after just a few years.
There is an urgent need for scientists, technologists and engineers, both trained domestically and welcomed from abroad. There is the challenge of scale-up: although some commercialisation metrics, like numbers of start-ups, are improving, it remains challenging for companies to scale up here, especially for those requiring significant capital investment. The recent comment by Oxford PV’s chief technology officer that the UK was the “least attractive” place to build its new factory for perovskite solar cells is a stark reminder that we continue to see companies built on ground-breaking UK science listing overseas.
As regards engaging the private sector and increasing private sector investment in R&D, a range of areas for policy reform have been identified but details of how this will work—indeed, of how the impact will be different from previous approaches—have not been set out, and the Government’s own role as a direct investor in technologies was also unclear. Disappointingly, the private sector witnesses we heard from indicated that the sector did not feel that it had been engaged in the development of the UK’s science and technology strategy. As inflation worsened during the course of the inquiry, concerns were raised about the cost of conducting research and that R&D budgets may be an easy target for departments and Governments looking to make short-term savings at the expense of long-term prosperity.
Our report made a number of recommendations. We asked for further definition of the science and technology strategy, with specific outcomes in priority areas and, critically, with an implementation plan so that it was about not just targets but action. We wanted the science and technology superpower ambition to be defined with specific metrics and suggested an independent body to monitor progress. We wanted more Cabinet-level agreement and focus on science and technology policy with a Science Minister in Cabinet and more frequent meetings of the NSTC. We wanted to see the UK rebuild its reputation as an international partner, starting with association with Horizon Europe.
We asked for clarity on how the Government were going to use their range of policy levers to stimulate private investment in R&D and more detail how tax credits, pension fund rules and procurement would need to change to support private investment in R&D and especially in scale-up companies. We suggested that reforms could be driven by specific taskforces in each area, headed by clearly accountable individuals, providing a single point of contact for stakeholder engagement. Our people and skills letter focused on four key areas: the domestic skills gap; the precariousness of research careers; visa policy for scientists and STEM workers; and our ability to retain and recruit science teachers and educators.
A great deal has happened in the year or so since this report was published, some of which I am sure some of us would rather forget. However, more positively, this includes the establishment of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and the appointment of a Secretary of State for Science. This is a positive development in giving science and technology a strong voice in Cabinet, but cross-departmental co-ordination through NSTC will remain critical. We look forward to hearing more from the Minister at a future appearance before our committee about her role and responsibilities and how the new department will interact with the rest of the science landscape in government and further afield.
The Windsor framework has allowed Horizon Europe negotiations to resume, and the committee urges the Government to associate at the earliest possible opportunity. The Government have published Science and Technology Framework, which sets some key targets and outcomes across 10 different science and technology areas and, although not all of them are measurable metrics, substantially builds on and defines the science and technology superpower agenda, as we urged in our report. We are promised a
“clear action plan for each strand”
by summer 2023, so we look forward to seeing them soon. Given that delivery will be overseen by the NSTC, we also hope to hear that it is meeting more regularly.
Science and Technology Framework also sets out new, if broad, priority areas including quantum, AI, engineering, biology, semiconductors and future telecoms, alongside
“life sciences, space, and green technologies.”
That is a slightly odd mixture of specific technologies and whole industry sectors, but it is a start in defining priorities for the UK. The Government say that DSIT will oversee strategies in each area, with some, like the semiconductor White Paper and AI White Paper, recently published, and associated packages of funding for semiconductors and life sciences announced.
This goes some way towards addressing our concerns that the UK’s science and technology strategy was insufficiently specified, but concerns about the scale of investment remain. For example, the semiconductor strategy announced £1 billion in funding, compared to the US support under the CHIPS Act, which totals some $52 billion, and the EU equivalent, which will amount to about €43 billion. Cambridge-based Arm is still planning to float in the US, despite government efforts. On green technologies, the approximately $400 billion investment under the Inflation Reduction Act in the US and efforts by the EU are driving a step change, which the UK has not yet responded to. It is difficult to see how we can be world beating without at least world-class investment. One has to ask whether the UK may be spreading itself too thinly by trying to compete in all these areas of science and technology. In this context of renewed industrial strategies worldwide, Make UK’s recent criticism of the UK’s lack of a long-term industrial strategy, and hence lack of pull-through for commercialising technologies, echoes the concerns raised in our report.
A further development since our report has been the recalculation of R&D GDP statistics by the ONS. This has increased estimates of R&D spend from 1.7% to 2.4% of GDP. We welcome the Government’s acknowledgement that
“a stronger baseline does not change the underlying rationale for growing investment in R&D”
and urge them to adopt an appropriate new target. A science and technology superpower should spend more than the average OECD country. We welcomed the increase in funding for R&D at the time, and we are pleased to see that it was defended in subsequent Budgets, but double-digit inflation will absorb most of this increase, while high inflation and interest rates may deter business investment in R&D.
The overall landscape of science policy and publicly funded research in the UK is responding to some major recent reviews, including the Grant review into UKRI and the Nurse review into the research and development landscape. Many of the recommendations from the Nurse review echo our own. We look forward to seeing how DSIT, UKRI and the NSTC will drive forward the recommendations from these reviews. It is encouraging to see that some promises of reform of public procurement, regulation for innovation, tax credits and intellectual property are under way. Sir Patrick Vallance’s review of regulation for emerging technologies is a positive development, and we wait to see how its recommendations are implemented.
Overall, there are promising signs that the Government view science and technology policy as a crucial area to get right. We agree that the potential is there, but the scale of the challenge must not be underestimated. Some of the recent changes are encouraging, but there is much more to do across the whole of government. Ensuring that “science and technology superpower” does not become another forgotten Panglossian political slogan will need clear strategy, commitment and co-ordination across government, business engagement, internationally competitive levels of funding and an unrelenting focus on delivery.
I shall finish by asking the Minister three specific questions: first, what is now holding up our association to the Horizon programme and when is this likely to be resolved? Secondly, what has happened to the Office for Science and Technology Strategy in the process of forming the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology? Thirdly, will the Government be developing a science superpower skills strategy? I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate, as it was to be a member of the Science and Technology Committee when we undertook this inquiry. It is a pleasure to follow my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, who eloquently set out the extent of the report’s findings so effectively. I echo her in thanking all the staff of the committee who did such excellent work supporting our inquiry. I declare my technology interests as set out in the register.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, did such an effortless job in covering the ground of the report, I would like to describe how I see our findings in five words. We need all five: clarity; long term; international; investment; and implementation. Perhaps the most powerful phrase of all came from Sir Patrick Vallance when he talked about the need for a laser focus on implementation. If we take those five words—those five pillars—what might that look like in reality?
The noble Baroness, Lady Brown, rightly highlighted the importance of regulation and the Vallance review into regulation in this area. I believe that the positive power that regulation can have to support innovation and technology in this country should not be underestimated for one second. We can look recent examples such as what we with the telecoms industry to regulate to enable mobile telephony in this country and what we did even more recently with the fintech sandbox to effectively enable in a regulatory environment so many scale-ups and start-ups to come through. What is the best measure of success for that regulatory sandbox? It has been replicated in well over 50 jurisdictions around the world. That is the positive potential that we have.
Let us put the “science and technology superpower” phrase to one side for a moment. We have, in truth, a real opportunity in the UK for science, technology and innovation. That comes from the great good fortune of the combination of common law, the financial centre in London, the English language, geography, time zone and many other factors. None of that should in any sense take us into a state of believing that we are a superpower, but we should fully appreciate the possibilities that it gives.
What might that look like with a particular sector? AI is much talked of at the moment, but if we can get safe and secure rules, it could enable positive growth in this country. We heard from the Prime Minister only days ago along the lines that if we are to grapple with and solve the problem of AI, we must do this together, not just the companies, but countries. That sounds pretty positively international to me, and that has to be the right approach.
Will the Minister say where specific sectoral strategies, such as the AI strategy, fit into an overall coherent approach across all sectors, all areas and all opportunities, not least, as we have already heard, semi-conductors but quantum and DLT, to name just three? How do we enable all this to fit together? I believe that so much comes down to having innovation right through every Whitehall department, a golden thread of innovation running through every single department. It is that cross-Whitehall working point again. I believe that the difficulty is that we have only ever had cross-Whitehall working twice, once for the Olympic and Paralympic Games and a second time for Covid. It has happened only twice, but look at the results that we had when we got that cross-Whitehall working. We had the very best of our Civil Service and the very best of our state. The possibilities are immense for the United Kingdom but, ultimately, what are science and technology superpowers? They are not nations; rather they are connection, collaboration, coming together and co-creation. That is what we need to be focused on. Tout le monde, if you will. I think we all must will it.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, for her excellent chairmanship of this committee and the work we got through. I also thank the wonderful team behind her. I want to suggest first of all that one of the great risks to the Government is that they start to feel very self-congratulatory. I feel that the idea of the word “superpower” was disastrous. If you talk to average scientists working in laboratories, they were horrified at it because they felt that it was yet again an example of the British Government talking themselves up without any data.
One issue is that we need to have a serious review of our international standing, which would be quite informative. I remember that some years ago, when I was a member of the UKSRC, we spent a lot of time each month looking at that standing at regular stages and trying to work out where we were doing well and where we were doing badly and we reacted in consequence. I do not know whether that still goes on in government, but it is certainly not mentioned in the Nurse review.
We have been talking about pathways to impact for a long time. One problem with impact is just what the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, said: innovation. We should forget about innovation. Innovation is a word that is so easily bandied around. What we are talking about is basic research, because it is the data that we get from basic research, not innovation, which really matters. The fact that we end up trying to suggest that we are going to change our economy with innovation because of the use of science in universities tends to be detrimental. I will come back to that in just a second.
The accent on financial value puts some academics off research. Indeed, I emphasise that the word “innovation” does not ring much with many people. In saying this, I declare my interest in a company called Startransfer, which is looking at some aspects of trying to change embryo culture. It is registered as a company, but nonetheless I still feel that the innovation side is really unimportant. It is the research that we are doing which will be important.
A key question that I want the Minister to answer is about the assessment of a project afterwards. When we talked to the people in charge of UKRI, they talked about the first 20% of grants being awarded. It would be very interesting to know whether those grants are tracked long term, what happens to them and whether they have the pathway to impact that they say they do in the application.
More importantly, I would argue that we are losing a lot of people in research. If 20% of our applications to UKRI are working, that means that 80% of scientists working in really good universities are not getting funded by a key body that is essential to their career. That is a very important consideration for the Government, and it seems to me that, unless we track what happens to the next 20%, the people who do not get a grant, we are failing in our duty to the whole situation.
I remember one of my colleagues who was working in my laboratory for a long time on splice sites, which was not very popular at the time, spending a year doing three different applications, none of which was successful. Eventually, he left without a research grant, and of course he has now retired early. Five or six years later, we are starting to see that the work that he was doing was really brilliant; it is now being recognised internationally, but of course it was never funded. That is important, too.
Finally, we need to be much more aware about UKRI. I did not think that we were doing this at all well, and we did not get the answers that we needed in the committee about researchers getting feedback from the organisation. When I was working in the United States, if you put in for a grant to the American equivalent for health research, you could phone up and get somebody to speak to who would give you some advice about how you might make your project more effective and successful as well as more topical and relevant to what the body was trying to do. We need to do that, and that goes with public engagement, which we have already been through in the previous debate.
My Lords, it was an honour to be a member of the committee, and I pay tribute to our chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, and our very helpful staff. We heard compelling evidence that, desirable though it may be, the ambition of the UK to become a science superpower is not on track. There is not much time, so I shall just make a few points.
The government response announced that we have reached the target of 2.4% of GDP spent on R&D. However, all our witnesses agreed that we must continue to keep pace with other nations if we are to reach the Government’s goal of becoming a science superpower by 2030. How are the Government tracking what other nations are doing?
Ten months has passed since the publication of the report, and we now have DSIT, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. One of our recommendations was about the Office of Science and Technology, which has not met many times nor produced any major papers. It has now been moved to DSIT and the Secretary of State will decide its remit. Can the Minister tell us when that will be published and how it will interact with the National Science and Technology Council, which I am glad to say has survived the reorganisation?
To achieve the Government’s objective, we need to be open to the brightest and best from abroad, but we have the most expensive and unwieldy visa system among comparable countries, apart from Australia and New Zealand. Additionally, successful applicants and their dependants must pay upfront for health services for the whole period of the visa. This is a substantial disincentive. The Government denied that our system costs more, which is blatantly not true, according to their own table, but said that the immigration system should be paid for by the users and not the taxpayer. We have asked for details of the actual costs attributed to the relevant visas, but these have not been supplied. Is it the case that scientific visa applicants are subsidising other functions of the Home Office?
The Government rejected our recommendation that health costs could be paid in annual instalments, saying that this would be too onerous for the Home Office and the NHS. It may be too onerous for the Home Office, but it cannot be beyond the capability of the NHS, because it already has to verify the eligibility of foreign visitors to use our health services. Can the Minister justify the Government’s attitude?
The Government want to become a regulatory superpower. The committee accepted that regulation can make countries more attractive to investors by indicating the direction of travel, but companies operating in international markets are concerned about regulatory divergence. We recommended that the Government should work with industry and the research base to identify the areas in which the UK can take a global lead, because deregulation for its own sake will not automatically spur innovation. Apparently, DSIT will be responsible for regulation of AI in a “pro-innovation fashion”. Will the Minister explain how taking a lead on regulation will encourage innovation without the potential downsides of divergence?
Turning to homegrown people and skills, we heard about the lack of routes for technicians, referred to as the gap in the middle. Higher-level apprenticeships can fill the gap. The committee recommended that higher-level apprentices should be given the financial support to enable them to move around the country to find an appropriate place—like university students. The Government’s response mentions a few small bits of support, but they hardly add up to what the committee had in mind. Can the Minister do better?
Finally, if we are to recruit more STEM graduates, we need more specialist teachers. There is a jumble of incentives for IT, chemistry and physics teachers, but nothing for specialist maths teachers, particularly in the light of the Prime Minister’s objective of having all young people study maths until they are 18. You cannot do that without teachers, so can the Minister say how it will be achieved?
My Lords, I, too, add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, for her comprehensive and, as usual, well-articulated speech. It is a pity that the Government in their response to the report did not recognise that its recommendations are an excellent blueprint for making the UK a global leader in science and technology. In my brief contribution, I shall focus on one recommendation relating to the need to develop global science partnerships, where the Government have not, as yet, a clear policy, without which their ambition for us to be a science superpower and for the UK to be a global Britain—terms often used by the Government—will not be accomplished.
Superpowers in defence, security and foreign policy use their power for greater influence in the world. That applies equally to countries that are leaders in science and technology, which position themselves to have a greater global impact. Collaboration is at the heart of being a science superpower. Acting in the national interest and for global benefit is not in conflict when it comes to research.
Our membership of the EU’s Horizon programmes allowed us to be one of the world’s leading countries for global partnerships in science and technology. We became the destination of first choice for young, talented, ambitious researchers. Many stayed on, were welcomed and went on to become principal investigators, some even winning prestigious awards, including Nobel prizes. Securing the UK’s research relationship with Europe, as has already been mentioned, is very important, and I hope the Government will pursue that and succeed, but we must also forge new relationships beyond Europe.
Freedom of movement of scientists to the UK, not just from the EU but from the wider world, demonstrated that the UK was open to talent, without barriers or high cost to individuals. Our open border to scientific talent is now closed, driven more by our immigration policy, as described by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, than by our ambition to be a global leader in science. Visas, health premiums and other costs, and now possible restrictions on families being able to accompany, are policies that make the UK seem an unwelcoming and expensive country. As highlighted by many, such as the Wellcome Trust. the ABPI, the Royal Society, et cetera, the UK needs to articulate more clearly its policies of global co-operation that will attract science talent to the UK.
Some key principles should guide this policy. The UK must be open, creating an environment where ideas can flourish and talent is welcome, creating a globally connected science community. The UK must build networks around the world and drive the policies that make our country the centre of those networks in a collaborative way. There is a need for more strategic thinking that allows a small country such as the UK to be an important partner in big, global projects. We need to use the UK’s influence for the global good and explore more the soft power of science collaboration. In this respect, stopping the ODA programmes by cutting funds gave completely the wrong message. Building a reputation—the one we had in the not-too-distant past—as the go-to research partners of choice for talented individuals and countries will not only supercharge our domestic research but attract foreign investment and talent.
My time is running out, so I ask the Minister: when will the Government publish a strategy for global partnerships in science and technology and remove current immigration barriers?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, for tabling this debate and ably chairing our Select Committee, and to the team supporting it. I declare an interest as a member of the committee, as an adviser to Future Planet Capital, which invests in the UK and global venture ecosystem for innovation, and as an adviser to or being on the board of a number of tech-related start-ups such as Sweetbridge EMEA and Dot Investing.
The report rightly highlights areas where the UK must improve to achieve its ambition of becoming a science and technology superpower, whether you define that in terms of the amount of innovation generated, the number of patents, ideas or even Nobel prizes, the value of ideas commercialised or simply our influence. The report highlights the areas that are key to success: increasing R&D funding; forging closer ties between academia and industry and between different parts of government, industry and academia; changing the way visas are charged for; and supporting start-ups to scale up. But without action, “science and technology superpower” remains merely a slogan. The Government must turn pledges into progress if the UK is to strengthen its position as a global leader in innovation.
However, even if we succeed in these areas, the UK faces structural challenges in the size of its domestic market, in access to capital markets for innovation in the City, in talent, in commercialisation expertise and in other resources, which the report acknowledges by rightly highlighting priority areas that we need to focus on. Our venture ecosystem, while thriving, remains small-scale in global comparison, although there have been laudable recent attempts to ramp this up by working with larger investors such as sovereign wealth and pension funds and insurers.
Our ageing population means taxation policies must account for the needs of tomorrow as well as today if we want sustainable public funding for R&D and education. We must pick our battles in areas where we can differentiate ourselves and lead. Therefore, to get bang for our buck, we should welcome a focus on areas such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, space and satellite technology, fintech, energy transition technologies such as nuclear, renewables and battery storage, and precision medicine and life sciences.
The report could have gone further in articulating how the UK can harness its advantages of agility, expertise and a focus on global impact to overcome disadvantages of scale. We showed what is possible by developing a world-class vaccine at record pace. By being more flexible and sandboxing regulations more, attracting capital from overseas and matching it with our own large domestic investment sources, and harnessing government procurement in a smarter way, we can still edge ahead. Our time zone and legal and regulatory systems enable the UK to become a launch pad for new technologies and be a leader that can attract the finance needed to make firms global without their having to shift their base abroad.
It saddens me that we have not sufficiently built on the success of the Vaccine Taskforce led so ably by Kate Bingham, or gone further—simplifying regulation and procurement where we could have to achieve greater freedoms for pioneers and innovators to build world-class supply chains based on science and tech. I ask the Minister what we are doing to build on this success as part of our science superpower strategy. With vision, the right targeted investments and, crucially, the right culture, we can navigate the challenges of size through global leadership in emerging sectors.
In conclusion, while the report highlights actions the Government must take to achieve their bold ambition, the UK must go further in playing to its strengths, particularly by being more nimble and having STEM-savvy, trained regulators and policymakers. By targeting support for sectors where we can differentiate globally, providing access to talent and long-term funding, and enabling an agile approach to regulation and policy-making, the UK can overcome its disadvantages of scale and smaller market to cement its role as a pioneering science and innovation leader on the world stage.
If we match rhetoric with resource, “science and technology superpower” can become more than a slogan, but it will require the right attitude and culture. As it says in Zechariah chapter 4, verse 6:
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty—you will succeed because of my Spirit”.
May the UK have that plucky spirit, which has served it well in the past and can do so again in the future.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord. I very much welcome the chance to take part in this debate, not least because I have recently joined the committee. I refer to my entry in the register of interests, but my main declaration is that I have an interest in science—not a financial but a real interest in it.
I congratulate the members of the committee, the chair and the staff on their work on this report. It makes some excellent recommendations, which I support. It takes a long time for Select Committee reports to finally get debated in your Lordships’ House. I would have preferred this debate to take place in the Chamber, thereby exposing more Members to what we are talking about, which would be a very good thing, but it is better than nothing to hold it here. I say to the Minister and the Government Whips: we need more debates about science and not fewer.
I thank all of the outside organisations that took the time to contact me and provide background briefings for today’s debate, including, in no particular order, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society, the Campaign for Science and Engineering—I note its comprehensive report, published by the Foundation for Science and Technology—Cancer Research UK, the Protect Pure Maths campaign, Imperial College and, of course, our own House of Lords Library. With only a few minutes for each Member, there is no way in a million years that I can refer to all the points that have been made, but I want their contributions to be recorded in Hansard.
We hear a lot about the phrase “science superpower” —I first heard it in 2016—but what does it actually mean? We are all familiar with the basic strengths of science in the UK—the oft-cited statistics about the number of research papers in proportion to the population, the excellence of our world-class universities, and so on. We have strengths and, now, strategic objectives in a number of key areas, such as quantum computing, AI, engineering and synthetic biology, semiconductors, future telecoms, life sciences, space and green tech. We know all of that and, yes, the UK does punch above its weight in science, but we need a range of things to fall into place to turn the slogan of a “science superpower” into reality.
Since this report was issued, there have been some important structural changes in the way the Government now approach this. We have the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, which gives the Secretary of State a place at the Cabinet table. We had the Nurse review and the welcome step forward in making integrated recommendations for the future of the research landscape. We have an active and assiduous Science Minister, to whom I pay tribute. So we have this organisational structure, but I hope it will last. I recently asked the departed Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, whether it would have helped his job if all these things had been in place when he started. The answer was: yes, it would.
However, we need a sense of commitment and sustained effort. I give the Prime Minister credit for giving every appearance of being committed, but can the Minister tell us how often these Cabinet committees now meet and how often the Prime Minister chairs them? What is the role of the new Chief Scientific Adviser and technology adviser, and how do their respective offices work? If the Minister is able, can he tell us how ARIA is getting on?
In the short time available, I will emphasise one point, on Horizon Europe. Will the UK rejoin it, and when? It would be remiss of me not to mention this, as I have put down Question after Question in the House over almost the last year and a half, and it has been a deeply damaging story, to put it very mildly. If today’s debate can achieve anything, it would be helpful if the Minister could tell us a bit more about what exactly is going on. Are we still negotiating? Are we doing so in good faith, or are our fingers crossed behind our backs in the hope that plan B is perhaps better? Is the row just about different UK and EU assessments about the effect of not being a member for two years? It is not just about the money—it is about the collaboration, contacts and networks, as other Members said. It is not just in Europe that we should collaborate; we signed a memorandum of understanding on science and technology with the United States and, last December, the Government signed an important international science partnership fund in Japan.
Whatever else a “science superpower” may prove to mean, it will definitely involve making sure that the UK is open to worldwide scientific co-operation, making it the most attractive place in which to do science research and then developing and commercialising it for the benefit of the UK and humanity.
My Lords, I am also a new member of the committee—I joined after this inquiry. I declare my unpaid interest as a council member of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This is a vital report, extremely effectively and comprehensively introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown.
In the 2021 integrated review, the Government claimed that so-called “Global Britain” was a science “superpower”. By the time that this apparently once-in-a-generation review had to be refreshed, only two years later, the Government simply said that we had a “strategic advantage” in science and technology, if we specialised—Patrick Vallance had probably corrected the original claim. However, in neither review was the vital Horizon programme even mentioned. Despite scientists urging association, the problem at first was our potentially breaking international law in relation to Northern Ireland. Then it was whether Horizon was value for money; the Prime Minister was apparently sceptical about its value.
The head of one of our higher education institutions told me that before we left Horizon he would get many inquiries about potential collaboration from EU scientists he did not know. Those approaches have completely dried up. Scientists report that they are muddling through, with UKRI temporarily helping to fill gaps, but that is not sustainable long term. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, emphasised, we cannot be a science superpower without that international collaboration. The Royal Society argues that an international approach is vital and that,
“association to Horizon Europe, Euratom, and Copernicus are crucial,”
The Nurse review says that it is “essential” that we rejoin Horizon.
There are many advantages to a multi-country programme over a merely national one. Problems and solutions cross international boundaries—for example, climate change or the pandemic. Funding and access to research infrastructure is increased, with further opportunities to commercialise research. Skills and expertise can be pooled. Can the Minister update us on Horizon and not simply give us warm words, which is what we have been hearing so far?
Sustained UK support for science remains vital. The report is right to emphasise the need for an industrial strategy. Out of an analysis on the coalition of the strengths and weaknesses of the UK economy came the catapults and, for example, significant investment in the Crick Institute as the largest biomedical centre in Europe. This Government seem strangely proud of not having an industrial strategy, and that just seems bizarre.
When ODA was suddenly cut from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5%, and then focused on supporting refugees, no one in Government seemed aware of how much had gone to supporting research, and it was suddenly removed. Thus investment in the Jenner Institute on the Ebola vaccine helped to pave the way for the Covid vaccine. We did well in this sector due to earlier investment. ODA money, as the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said, indeed helped to build our international reputation in science.
The Government now talk of,
“shaping the global science and technology landscape through strategic international engagement, diplomacy and partnerships”.
That is double-speak right now. The Royal Society states that, if the UK wants to be a world leader in this area, it also needs to be world-leading in its approach to researcher mobility. The Nurse review points to immigration policy hindering wider objectives for research. Now we hear that masters students should not bring dependants with them. What does that do for our universities, for families and particularly for women?
Therefore, my questions to the Minister in his new department, welcome as it is, are: will it start advocating effectively in Cabinet for those in science and higher education? Should immigration policy remain in the Home Office? What is taking the Government so long to sign up to Horizon, and how will they put right the damage that has already been done?
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register and join others in thanking our excellent chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, and the clerk and policy analyst who helped us produce this report.
Some of our witnesses told us that we are already a science superpower, while others said it was a meaningless slogan or possibly, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said, unhelpful boasting. My conclusion is that the slogan is largely hot air. Why do I say that? It is because the Government have not learned the lessons of history. The first person to try to quantify the UK’s position in the world of science was the late Lord May of Oxford when he was the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser. He quantified the performance of the UK relative to other countries in terms of major prizes such as the Nobel, Crafoord, and Balzan, and, in terms of bibliometrics, the numbers of papers published and citations. The UK was second only to the United States in scientific output and productivity. With 2% of the world’s scientists, we published 10% of the world’s papers and 13% of the most highly cited papers. If you look at input as well as output, the UK was well ahead of all other large countries in terms of bangs per buck.
Those are facts that Lord May of Oxford established —but the question is: why were we so successful? It cannot be that we are somehow inherently superior or innately better at science than anybody else. I shall mention three factors. The first is long-termism. In scientific research, major discoveries or breakthroughs usually follow many years of dedicated pursuit and many blind alleys. Nobel Prize winner, Max Perutz, referred to the long, lean years in his 22-year quest to determine the structure of haemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen to every cell in our bodies. Furthermore, the lag between discovery and application is generally measured in decades rather than years. Katalin Kariko, the Hungarian-American scientist whose research led to the development of RNA vaccines against Covid, such as Pfizer and Moderna, made her key discoveries in the late 1980s and early 1990s with no application on the horizon.
The second ingredient in the recipe for success is openness, which many other noble Lords have mentioned. Of the 72 Nobel Prizes in all fields awarded to UK scientists in the past 50 years, 20 were awarded to people born overseas who moved to the UK to do research. We have benefited hugely from welcoming overseas scientists.
The third ingredient in the recipe for success is freedom of inquiry. Were Watson and Crick on a mission to solve a practical problem? No. They were driven by an impulse to unlock the secrets of nature. As a result, they made one of the most profound discoveries of all time in the life sciences, which has transformed medicine. In fact, you could argue that, if you know how the results of your work are going to be applied, it cannot be very interesting or novel work in the first place.
In the Government’s quest to become or remain a scientific superpower, have they learned the lessons of history? Our evidence suggested not. Here is what we heard. First, in recent years the Government have published no fewer than eight different strategies for science with 25 priority areas: there is no long termism here. Secondly, the Government have slammed the door on many scientists from overseas by bureaucratic and financial hurdles and as a result of Brexit. Thirdly, the pipeline of young scientific talent is being strangled by a combination of precarity and bureaucratic overload in UKRI for early career researchers and further back in the pipeline by the persistent shortage of science teachers in state schools. Becoming a science superpower is not a sprint—it is a marathon, and the Government have tied their shoelaces together at the start of the race. I hope that the Minister will answer my questions about the lessons of history and say whether he agrees with them.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, and the committee staff. I will venture a few words on schools, universities and R&D. Ideally, these crucial sectors should be governed by a bipartisan consensus that offers long-term stability. In depressing contrast, turbulence in government has triggered unstable policies, a rapid churn of Ministers and the proliferation of committees.
Attainment levels in our schools are poor compared to nations in the Far East and northern Europe. In particular, there are far too few good science teachers. There are three things that can be done: ensuring that conditions are good enough and pay levels are appropriate for practitioners of a serious profession; encouraging mature individuals to move into teaching from a career in research, industry or the Armed Forces; and making better use of the web and distance learning.
Our international rankings are higher in higher education, but there are some worrying trends. Academia is becoming less alluring. Some people will become academics, whatever happens—the nerdish element, of which I am one—but a world-class university system cannot survive just on them. It must attract a share of young people who are savvy about their options and ambitious to achieve something distinctive by their 30s. They increasingly associate academia with years of precarity and undue financial sacrifices.
A further off-putting trend is the deployment of ever more detailed performance indicators to quantify outputs, and the labour involved in preparing grant applications with a diminishing chance of success. This pressure gives two perverse incentives to young academics: to shun high-risk research and to downplay their teaching. Indeed, the declared rationale for setting up ARIA is to foster “long-term”, “blue-skies” research and freedom from bureaucracy in a fashion not available elsewhere in the system. It should surely be a higher priority to render less vexatious the bureaucracy of UKRI, whose budget is 50 times higher than ARIA’s.
In the UK, research is still strongly concentrated in universities—not so in France and Germany—but the encroachment of audit culture and other pressures are rendering universities less propitious environments for research projects that demand intense and sustained effort. Dedicated, stand-alone labs may become preferable —although there is a downside, as they reduce contact between talented researchers and students. Indeed, the UK owes its strength in biomedical science to its famous labs, which allow full-time, long-term research, with government funding massively supplemented by the Wellcome Trust, the cancer charities and a strong pharmaceutical industry. To ensure effective exploitation of new discoveries, these institutes must be complemented by organisations that can offer adequate development and manufacturing capability. This fortunate concatenation certainly proved its worth in the recent pandemic. We likewise need this in energy, AI and other crucial technologies.
One should welcome Paul Nurse’s recent report, whatever one’s views of his earlier report that created UKRI—and the web of new committees that it embedded into. However, our ability to attract and retain mobile academic talent, and our ranking as a destination of choice by those people, is now at risk. I will not reiterate the overwhelming case for rejoining the ERC, but there is now an international market for the best students as well: they are academic assets and a long-term investment in international relations. To retain its competitiveness as a “destination of choice” for mobile experts, despite the setback of Brexit, the nation must remove impediments and raise its game. Ways of doing this are a key theme of our committee’s report.
My Lords, I join everyone in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, and her committee; I look forward to its future work and future reports—which I hope will be debated more promptly.
This report from August 2022 reveals gaping holes where government action should have been. I thank Imperial College London for its useful briefing, which identified how some of those gaping holes have been plugged, at least with stopgap measures. However, as many other noble Lords have already noted, the remaining enormous holes in the house of scientific and technological endeavour, out of which human and financial resources are fast flowing, are the lack of UK association with the Horizon Europe programme; the disastrous hostile environment immigration policies; and the collapse in the genuine official development assistance support. The Royal Academy of Engineering also provided useful reflections, stressing principles including a willingness to act for the long term; moving with agility and at pace; trusted and capable leadership; and action that accelerates progress. Those are not, I am afraid, anything with which this Government are associated.
However, rather than taking pot shots—as tempting and easy as that is—I will seek to bring a unique Green perspective to this debate, and make three challenges to the very foundations of the Government’s approach and, in some respects—and with respect—to that of your Lordships’ committee. The first is the assumption, underlying much of the Government’s rhetoric, that the aim of the science and technology framework—with its talk of bringing technologies to market and of private sector involvement and profit—is to make things, or to create services or intellectual property, to sell.
Certainly, when one looks at the UKRI five-year strategy from March 2022, I am not going to argue with the aim of driving the development, adoption and diffusion of green technologies, but also in that list is developing preventive measures to improve the nation’s health and well-being. The new Secretary of State talks of helping British people to live longer, smarter, healthier and happier lives, but what if achieving that means not making things or creating services to sell, not improving profits but finding ways in which to heal lives and environments without making a profit, thus cutting demand for expensive drugs or invasive treatments, ending the need for farmers to use pesticides or herbicides, or co-creating essential knowledge, working with researchers and communities in the global South and sharing that knowledge for free? Identifying the bad things that we do now and stopping them is also science, even if that means cutting profits and reducing GDP. We need to think hard about how we find funding for research and development for such measures, and that has to be a government priority.
Secondly, I disagree with the five critical technologies identified in the science and technology framework. Crucially, there are two things that are not there: ecology and social innovation. I disagree particularly with one that is there:
“Engineering biology–the application of rigorous engineering principles to the design of biological systems”.
That is such a 20th-century reductionist and outdated view, the kind that we saw on full display in the creation of the so called Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act. Are they really the same Government who occasionally, at odd moments, will claim to believe in the principles of agroecology and to understand that the survival of human systems on this planet to maintain a liveable climate and natural systems means working with the incredibly complex and still little understood natural systems of animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, viruses and archaea that together have created life on this planet?
Finally, although noble Lords may think that I have been radical enough, I am going to finish with an even more radical thought. The UKRI again speaks of securing UK strategic advantage in game-changing technologies, but rather than thinking about beating others in a world facing the climate emergency and nature crisis, with epidemics of poverty and ill health, rampant pandemic threats and a planet poisoned with plastics, pesticides and pharmaceuticals, we have to co-operate with others to make the best possible collective use of human ingenuity, skills, talent and time to survive and thrive through this next dangerous century.
I express my appreciation to the staff and the leadership of the committee.
British science is in a parlous state. We are in the process of crippling our academic institutions, which have traditionally fostered our scientific discoveries. We are also losing the technological industries that have stimulated our inventiveness. Many are quietly disappearing, if they are not falling into the hands of foreign owners, which is often a prelude to their eventual demise.
During the committee’s inquiry, a plethora of reviews were under way concerning the governance of science and technology in the UK. These included the second review by Paul Nurse of the R&D organisational landscape, the Tickell review into research bureaucracy and the Gluckman review into the research excellence framework, which audits the research activities of universities.
The second Nurse review, which was delivered after the publication of the report of the committee, contains some interesting revelations. The first of these, as other noble Lords have mentioned, is that there has been a systematic underestimation of the percentage of GDP that the UK devotes to research and development. For many years, it was thought to be a mere 1.7%; it now appears that it is close to the OECD average of 2.5%. The second revelation is that the amount of R&D directly sponsored by the UK Government is well below the OECD average and far behind that of most research-intensive nations.
In putting this finding into perspective, it helps to take a long historical view. The country that emerged from the Second World War was endowed with a wealth of government research establishments and with many scientific and technological projects that were supported by the Government. The aviation industry was in receipt of large subventions. It was generating numerous prototypes of advanced military and civil aircraft. To restrain these expenditures became an obsession of the Civil Service. It developed a methodology of project cancellation that became more effective with the passage of time.
The restraint of government expenditure on research and development extended far beyond the aviation industry. It greatly affected Britain’s nuclear power industry, which was brought to a virtual halt. The restraint also affected many of the research establishments that had been supporting industry in both the public and the private sectors. Britain’s computer and telecommunications industries collapsed through a lack of support. This litany can be continued with many other examples. The advent of the Conservative Administration of Margaret Thatcher saw the culmination of this process of governmental disengagement, and there has been no significant re-engagement subsequently.
A truth that the report does not acknowledge sufficiently is that a nation cannot aspire to become a scientific superpower if it lacks a basis of scientific and technological industries that are ready to call upon the skills of the research workers. Britain has a severely attenuated industrial base. The decline of British industry has been a gradual and an inexorable process, to which several factors have contributed. The foremost of these has been the failure of our export industries, for which the persistent overvaluation of our currency has been largely responsible. The resulting balance of payments problems have been addressed by the Government’s encouragement of so-called inward financial investment, which has amounted to the sale of our infrastructure and industries to foreign owners. Among the companies that have been most attractive to foreign investors are those within our high-tech industries.
In the absence of a commercial and an industrial stimulus, British research and innovation is liable to retreat into British universities, which are also in peril. It is a familiar nostrum that, although British universities have been excellent at pure research, they have been less successful at applying it in practical contexts. The blame has tended to fall upon the academics and hardly at all upon industries that might have been their clients. The nostrums of the knowledge exchange framework and the demands for practicality that have arisen within the research excellence framework are a testimony to this tendency.
Universities are now in severe financial straits. Their staff, who have suffered severe erosions of their incomes and growing insecurity of their employment, are frequently on strike. The prospects for British science are poor, at a time when, in consequence of Brexit, many foreign academics have left the country and when senior academics are inclined to discourage their research students from thinking of joining the profession.
My Lords, I declare my interests in the register and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, and her committee on producing this important and comprehensive report. It rightly emphasises the need for government to have a clear and consistent science and technology policy, with a laser focus on implementation to prevent “science and tech superpower” simply being an empty slogan.
I will make just two points. The first relates to the vital role of industry engagement, and the second concerns the crucial importance of association with Horizon Europe. On the role of industry, the Government’s R&D spend of 2.4% of GDP requires significant private sector investment, which is expected to be around twice the public sector spending. The apparent increase to 2.4% is, of course, welcome, but it represents a significant increase in industry funding. As the Select Committee report notes,
“industry does not yet feel engaged with the strategy process”
of the Government.
A vital ingredient of the pathway to the UK becoming a science and tech superpower will be effective translation of research for application and exploitation by industry. The recent Nurse review, published in March, addressed the importance of translational research organisations, rightly emphasising the need to bridge
“the gap between discovery research and the translation of that research into real-world uses”.
The review highlights the important role of catapults in achieving this. They are independent, not-for-profit technology and innovation centres first established by the Government in 2011. They are intended to foster collaboration between research organisations in the public and private sectors, and their main purpose is to assist industry with turning innovative research ideas into commercial products via connections and networks. The Royal Academy of Engineering emphasises the importance of connections and networks, as exemplified by catapults, in its recent position paper, Strategic Advantage through Science and Technology: the Engineering View, which was published in April.
This House’s Science and Technology Select Committee considered catapults in detail in its report, Catapults: Bridging the Gap Between Research and Industry, published in February 2021. I was privileged to have been a member of that committee under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Patel. We made a number of recommendations regarding catapults, and our report was debated in the House last year.
In particular, we highlighted the crucial question of the future role and long-term continuity of the catapults. We recommended that the Government prioritise scaling up the Catapult Network, promoting it as the UK’s national innovation asset. In the light of the ambition for the UK to become a science and technology superpower, can the Minister provide an update on the Government’s strategy regarding catapults and their role in promoting substantially greater industry R&D investment?
My second and final point relates to Horizon Europe. The noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, referred to this critical post-Brexit issue in her excellent introductory speech, as did other noble Lords speaking in this debate. The Select Committee rightly highlights the damage already caused to the UK’s reputation and scientific capability by the ongoing lack of association with Horizon Europe. UK universities have built high-impact science, technology and innovation networks over many decades of collaboration within EU framework programmes. These are now in jeopardy.
The UK must be seen by all international research communities as a reliable partner, and the Government must recognise that their plan B in the event of non-association with Horizon Europe is in danger of being a poor second best. The Nurse review concludes that it is essential that the UK associate with Horizon Europe. If it does not do so, the UK is in real danger of losing its prestigious position in the global R&D hierarchy, becoming less attractive as a research partner and for foreign investment and less likely to become a science and technology superpower.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register, in particular as chair of the council of Queen Mary University of London. This has been a wide-ranging debate, demonstrating that the committee’s report, despite being nearly a year old, still has great currency and relevance and its conclusions are as valid as they were a year ago. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, for her clear, comprehensive and challenging introduction to the report.
Many noble Lords mentioned the Government’s science superpower ambition. The “hot air” comment from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, was pretty fair. Sir James Dyson was even ruder, describing the Government’s science superpower ambition as a political slogan. There is probably a common view that it should be dropped, but it being clearly overblown as a slogan should not detract from the fact that there are opportunities in so many different fields, as many noble Lords have said.
I very much liked the way in which the noble Lords, Lord Holmes and Lord Krebs, both talked about the secret—the essence—of success in terms of collaboration and cocreation. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned long-termism, openness, freedom of inquiry and the fact that those lessons had not been learned. As the committee noted and a number of noble Lords have said, we have had a proliferation of strategies in various areas, but with what follow up and plans for delivery? We have had a whole series of reviews, some of which were mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, but where is the result? What will the KPIs be? What is the shelf life of these reviews and where is the practical implementation?
I will take just one example: the Life Sciences Vision, which was launched back in 2021. Dame Kate Bingham is quoted as believing that the vaccine scheme legacy has been “squandered” despite that vision. Business investment is crucial and nowhere more than in the life sciences sector. A couple of weeks ago, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, highlighted the issues relating to business investment in the life sciences sector in his regret Motion on the Branded Health Service Medicines (Costs) (Amendment) Regulations 2023. All the levers to create incentives for the development of new medicines are under government control but, as his Motion noted, the UK’s share of global pharmaceutical R&D fell by more than one-third between 2012 and 2020.
The noble Lord rightly argued that the voluntary and statutory pricing schemes for new medicines are becoming a major impediment to future investment in the UK. We seem to be treating the pharma industry as some kind of golden goose so, despite the Government’s Life Sciences Vision, we see Eli Lilly pulling investment on laboratory space in London because the UK
“does not invite inward investment at this time”
and AstraZeneca has decided to build its next plant in Ireland because of the UK’s discouraging tax rate. The excellent O’Shaughnessy report on clinical trials is all very well, but if there is no commercial incentive to develop and launch new medicines here, why should pharma companies want to engage in clinical trials here? The Chancellor’s growth package for the life sciences, announced on 25 May, fails to tackle this crucial aspect, and I could repeat that for other sectors.
On these Benches, we welcome the creation of the new department and the launch of the Science and Technology Framework to inform the work of the department to 2030, but what are the key priority outcomes? What concrete plans for delivery lie behind it? Does it explicitly supersede all the visions and strategies that have gone before? The crux of this committee’s report seems to me to accord with that. It states:
“The Government should set out specifically what it wants to achieve in each of the broad areas of science and technology that it has identified. There should be a clear implementation plan.”
It also stated that,
“the Government should consolidate existing sector-specific strategies”
into that implementation plan.
We have heard from a number of Lords about vital cross-departmental working and joining up government on science and technology, but we do not yet really know the role of the National Science and Technology Council and what its key priorities are and, indeed, what the priorities of the Office for Science and Technology Strategy are.
This applies particularly with regard to the Home Office’s policy on visas. We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, my noble friends Lady Walmsley and Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, about the fact that the policy on visas and migration is directly at odds with an effective science policy. If we are going to be world-leading in our approach to research and mobility, we need to correct that in many different ways.
There are important systemic issues that should be a top priority for resolution by the new department. We have had the independent review by Sir Paul Nurse, which has been mentioned. I suspect he has calculated our spending in a rather different way from the way that the department has, but he concluded that funding, particularly provided by government, was limited and below that of other competitive nations such as Germany, South Korea and US. My noble friend Lady Walmsley asked whether we track how other nations are spending.
There is the question of Horizon, which we have disproportionately benefited from in the past, yet we have a complete lack of clarity in this area, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Brown and Lady Bennett, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, the noble Lord, Lord Mair, and my noble friend Lady Walmsley said. We need a clear commitment to re-entering Horizon. What is the position nearly two months after the Prime Minister’s letter to Sir Adrian Smith on 14 April assuring him about our intentions on Horizon? Many other nations that are not members of the European Union belong to Horizon.
The way the UK delivers and supports research is not optimal. We have heard from a number of noble Lords about the way that the bureaucracy of UKRI operates. The Tickell review found that there are issues with bureaucracy around research and development funding. As the noble Lord, Lord Rees, says, it is extraordinary that ARIA was specifically designed to avoid bureaucracy. Its budget is tiny in comparison to UKRI, yet we have not reformed the processes of UKRI to make them less bureaucratic.
The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, talked about the role of university research, and others talked about the research excellence framework. We seem to have a rather perverse approach to this. As the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said, we should encourage strategic partnerships, which should be very much part of the warp and weft of what we are trying to achieve. At the moment, our research in universities is cross-subsidised by overseas students, which is an extraordinary state of affairs. We really need to look at that in some detail.
With the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, commercialisation is a crucial aspect linking R&D to economic growth. This, in turn, means the need for a consistent industrial strategy—as the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, and my noble friend Lady Northover said—with the right commercial incentives and an understanding of the value of intangible assets, such as IP and data. The noble Lord, Lord Mair, talked about catapults—I am a huge fan of them—and he was entirely right to raise the resources and the strategy that is being pursued. An update from the Minister on that would be extremely welcome.
There are many other aspects to do with the scale-up finance issues, which Sir Patrick Vallance mentioned in his evidence to the Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee last month. We have seen the whole question of listing problems in London, as well as the delay in the pension fund issue and helping to de-risk their investment in new technology—I have seen the new initiative from the British Business Bank, which is long overdue. Then we have the whole question of regulatory divergence. I disagree with those who, like the noble Lord, Lord Wei, seem to think that, if we stand out in terms of regulation, everything will be fine. Regulatory divergence is one of the real problems; it creates uncertainty. We need to align ourselves in so many ways. I could have given a whole speech on AI regulation, but I have desisted. However, needless to say, I am highly critical of the Government’s White Paper in this respect.
Finally, the whole area of diversity in STEM is absolutely crucial. In the wise words of the British Science Association, we must ensure that the opportunities and benefits are equitable in any future science strategy. There is not enough time to go into that, but I believe that that could be a real key to unlocking so much of our success. I do not have time to mention pure maths, but we also need to look at that.
There is much to do for the new department. I wish the Minister and his colleagues well, and I am sure that they will rise to the challenge. But we need to create the kind of consensus that the noble Lord, Lord Rees, advocated. That is another secret to success.
My Lords, like everyone else, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, on the excellence of her committee’s report and the contribution made to putting that together by our clerks, the evidence given by witnesses and the sheer quantum and excellence of the contributions made—it is a really profound look at the Government’s science and technology programme and approach.
I am suffering a bit from imposter syndrome. Everyone else who spoke can speak wisely from their experience in the field of science, but I cannot. It is now some 50 years since I left school without a single science qualification—I was one of only two art students in my old secondary modern. Most of my colleagues who survived until the sixth form all went off to do maths and science subjects—and did them very well. But that does stop any of us having a view on government policy. This report should bring the Minister up sharp in terms of the Government’s response. The report was published nearly a year ago, as many have said, but time has not treated it badly; in fact, quite the reverse—it still seems very fresh and current to me on reading it.
As the committee noted, and as the Government acknowledge, science and technology are key to the UK’s future. If we get policy right, it will have untold benefits for our economy and our people right across the country. Research and development are essential to the development of a robust and thriving economy, and we certainly need a more effective strategy than we currently have for developing manufacturing and industry.
However, as we so often hear when we debate the output of your Lordships’ excellent committees, there are worries about a significant gap between the Government’s stated ambitions and their output. The report argues that, although individual sectoral strategies may successfully identify key challenges or contain eye-catching headlines and targets, there is, worryingly,
“little sense of how they fit into an overall plan”.
That is not the first time that this accusation has been levelled at this Administration, and, with all his talk of delivering on the priorities of the British people, it is disappointing that the Prime Minister and his ministerial team seem to struggle so much with timely, effective implementation—their great Achilles heel. With a seemingly never-ending flow of Prime Ministers, Chancellors and junior Ministers in recent years—there have been nine Science Ministers in five years, which is something of a record—the science and technology sectors have seen multiple relaunches and rebranding exercises, which hardly helps people to buy into a single core strategy.
As noble Lords have said, the Government published a Science and Technology Framework in March, outlining their goals and vision for science and technology for 2030. This follows the innovation strategy, an R&D road map, a science plan, an Office for Science and Technology Strategy, The Grand Challenges, half-baked industrial strategies, various sector deals, the establishment of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, the first National Science and Technology Council, a new science and technology council and two reorganisations of UKRI. The organogram on page 21 of the report shows just how complex the Government’s decision-making and arrangements for R&D and science have become. There may well be merit in many of these steps—indeed, we have supported certain initiatives—but the sheer volume of announcements, rebrands and reorganisations points, in my view and that of many others, to a Government concerned with media headlines rather than day-to-day delivery.
If we look at the Government’s record, exactly what do we see? The number of women starting STEM apprenticeships was down in the most recent year-on-year data, which fed through to unfilled maths and physics vacancies in schools, as noble Lords referenced—these are exactly the subjects that the PM says he cares about. The UK is an international outlier in terms of investment: many UK-based tech and life sciences start-ups and scale-ups are struggling to get access to funds, leading some to relocate overseas. The geographical spread of investment is uneven, meaning a lack of support for businesses and jobs in places like the north-east, and far too much of the R&D budget is lost to error and fraud. The Government’s AI strategy is, seemingly, already out of date. While the Prime Minister seems to have woken up to the threats of AI in recent weeks, it is not clear that he has the appetite or clout to facilitate an international response. The lack of a clear cross-cutting industrial strategy means that the UK is losing the race on new green technologies and lagging behind on reskilling, and the Government’s ideological opposition to trade unions means a failure to embed new technologies with the support of our workforce.
We wholeheartedly support the ambition of making the UK a science and technology superpower, but there seems to be no clear strategy to secure that status. Many of the essential ingredients are in place: we are home to brilliant businesses and entrepreneurs, and we have a fantastic workforce and a track record of innovation—the Covid vaccine is one of the glowing examples.
We hope that the recent machinery of government changes—the Government are to be congratulated for having a Science Minister at Secretary of State level—will result in a new strategic focus. Ministers need to know and understand that we are not a million miles away from 2030 and, if the Government continue on their current course, there is little to suggest that we will break free from their decade of low growth.
I join others in wanting some answers to the questions about the Horizon Europe programme, which all noble Lords who have spoken this evening have referenced. We really need this to be resolved. It is a big mistake in the making, and if we do not grasp the opportunity to work with our partners and collaborate across boundaries and borders, we will miss the biggest trick in the R&D world.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and others, who pointed to the clunky nature of the visa system. It is stopping and inhibiting scientists from across the world coming to our country. In the past, we have benefited greatly from that. It is a drag factor in terms of current policy.
On the Horizon programme, is there a plan B? Will one be published? Does it exist? Is it something we can rely on? There are many questions for the Minister to answer. It has been a fascinating debate, and I am sure that all noble Lords are looking forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness for securing this important debate and indeed to the whole committee. On a personal level, as a still relatively new Minister, it is incredibly helpful to have set out in the report a not always positive but clear-eyed critique of where we are going in science policy. I am grateful for that and for the excellent contributions made by all noble Lords in today’s debate.
As a number of noble Lords mentioned, in February, the Prime Minister announced the creation of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology—DSIT. It will promote a diverse research and innovation system, connecting discovery science to new companies, growth and jobs. I believe and hope that the creation of DSIT has addressed many of the challenges raised by the Select Committee in its report. It will provide strategic coherence in policy and strategy for science and tech. I recognise that there are different views on this, but it has been warmly welcomed by a large number of external stakeholders for putting science and tech at the heart of the Government’s agenda. Of course, all government departments undertake R&D to support their own policy objectives, but DSIT plays a unique role as steward of the UK R&D system across Whitehall and nationally, supporting world-class R&D and the underpinning investment through our universities and labs to enable a thriving R&D system.
On 6 March, the Prime Minister and the DSIT Secretary of State launched the science and technology framework—the Government’s plan to cement the UK’s place as a science and tech superpower by 2030. The framework is there to challenge every part of government to put the UK at the forefront of global science and technology. Action will focus on creating the right environment to develop critical technologies; investing in R&D, talent and skills; financing innovative science and tech companies; creating international opportunities; providing access to physical and digital infrastructure; and improving regulation and standards. We have already taken significant steps. Since the launch of the S&T framework we have announced £2.5 billion over the next decade for quantum tech; launched a £250 million tech missions fund for AI, quantum and engineering biology; launched the AI regulation White Paper; and announced a £1 billion strategy for the UK’s semiconductor sector.
In addition, we have been progressing work to define clear strategies for individual sectors, such as the AI action plan, the life sciences strategy and the national space strategy. These actions will help to ensure that the UK has the skills, talent and infrastructure to take a global lead in game-changing technologies and ground-breaking science.
While DSIT is taking the lead on the S&T framework, this is necessarily a cross-government effort. For example, use of government procurement to stimulate innovation is led from the Cabinet Office but needs to harness the big budgets, such as defence, to really have impact. By the end of 2023, we will publish an update setting out the progress that we have made and the further action that must be taken on our path to being a science and tech superpower by 2030.
As set out in the 2023 Spring Budget, the Government will turn their vision for UK enterprise into a reality by supporting growth in the sectors of the future. This includes the five critical technologies alongside life sciences and green technologies. Underpinning the Government’s long-term strategy and support for the sectors of the future is a commitment to increasing publicly funded and economy-wide R&D spending. The Government have recommitted to increasing public expenditure on R&D to £20 billion per annum by 2024-25. I take the points that were raised about needing to compete in a high-spending international environment. This represents a cash increase of around one-third and is the largest ever increase in public R&D spending over a spending review period.
I turn to the matter that I think almost everybody raised of international collaboration. We need to think globally if we are to make the most effective progress and tackle global challenges. We want to be the partner of choice for other leading science nations and to tap into the rising potential of emerging economies, ensuring that we are seen as a natural partner. For example, the UK in April signed a landmark memorandum of understanding on research and innovation with India, enabling quicker, deeper collaboration that will drive economic growth, create skilled jobs and improve lives in the UK, India and worldwide.
Attracting high-skilled international talent will bring long-term benefits to the whole of the UK. Science and Technology Framework presents a talent and skills vision for 2030 in which the UK has a large and varied base of skilled technical and entrepreneurial talent, able to respond quickly to the needs of industry, academia and government. This includes our immigration offer for talented researchers and innovators to come to the UK, including via the high potential route for recent graduates of top global universities and the scale-up route for individuals recruited by a UK-based high-growth scale-up company.
I turn to Horizon, which I know is a subject of great importance not just here but around the research community and the country. The Government are fully committed to science and research collaboration, including with our European counterparts. That is why we continue to be in discussions, which, contrary to the point raised, are in good faith, with our European counterparts on the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe and hope that our negotiations will be successful. That is our strong preference, but we are clear that our participation must be fair for the UK’s researchers, businesses and taxpayers. We have set out our bold, ambitious alternative to Horizon Europe—Pioneer—if we are not able to secure association on fair and appropriate terms. Negotiations are ongoing, so I cannot comment on their content except to say that our priority remains to ensure that the UK’s R&D sector gets the maximum level of support to allow it to continue its ground-breaking research and collaboration with international partners.
I will now turn to some of the specific points raised. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, whose remarks I thank her for, I shall focus my comments on her three key questions. First, on Horizon, as I have noted, we are moving forward with the discussions and our involvement in EU science and research programmes. As several noble Lords have noted, delays over two years have caused serious and lasting damage to UK R&D. As I say, we hope sincerely that negotiations will be successful, but the guiding principle remains that participation has to be fair for UK researchers, businesses and taxpayers.
To provide the industry with certainty, we recognise that we must come to a resolution as quickly as possible. To be as clear as I can be, we want to associate with Horizon Europe, but it has to be on fair terms, and if we cannot reach fair and appropriate terms, we will launch Pioneer. Meanwhile we have established the Horizon guarantee to ensure that there is no loss in funding for the UK sector. This will be in place to cover all Horizon Europe calls that close on or before the end of June 2023. We are keeping the scope of the guarantee under review and will ensure that there is no gap in funding flowing to the sector.
Following the recent machinery of government changes, OSTS has now been integrated into the newly created Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. The National Science and Technology Council will remain a Cabinet committee following the recent changes, with the Prime Minister as chair.
On skills, which were also raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, the Government welcome the committee’s inquiry on people and skills in STEM and have responded to the recommendations. The Government remain committed to taking forward the R&D people and culture strategy. The Science and Technology Framework prioritises action on talent and skills which looks at the wider system, supporting STEM skills across the economy.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, my noble friend Lord Wei and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, in relation to NSTC, there is a long-standing convention that the frequency, attendance list and minutes of Cabinet and its committees are not made public to protect the principle of collective agreement by Ministers.
On the science and tech framework, by the end of 2023, we will publish an update setting out the progress that we have made and the further action that must be taken on our path to being a science and technology superpower by 2030.
My noble friend Lord Holmes asked how the specific strategies fit into an overall coherent approach. The Government have set out their priorities through a suite of strategies, including the R&D road map, the UK innovation strategy and the people and culture strategy, which take a strategic or thematic overview to drive delivery of the Government’s priorities. We agree that policy coherence is essential for the success of the UK’s R&D mission.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Winston, for his comments and agree with the points he raised about the importance of support for researchers. UKRI is working to improve the experience of applying for funding through its Simpler and Better Funding programme.
In response to the question about ensuring good monitoring and evaluation data on the R&D that UKRI funds, information about research outputs is tracked by UKRI and other funders as a requirement. Monitoring and evaluation of the impact of funding is undertaken to understand that impact.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked how we track what other nations are doing. The FCDO’s science and innovation network based in embassies across the world provides valuable intelligence on the science and tech strategies of other nations which informs the UK’s approach and supports international dialogue. The noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Northover, asked whether scientific visa applications are subsidising other functions in the Home Office. I accept that the global race for science, research, technology and innovation is increasingly competitive, and the Government aim to make the UK the best place in the world for scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs to live and work. The Government are committed to ensuring that the UK’s immigration system supports growth and is clear and supportive for scientists, academics and entrepreneurs—
I am happy to write to the noble Baroness.
In response to how the Government are taking a lead on regulation without the downside of regulatory divergence, the Government recognise that technological innovation is fundamental to unlocking growth and are committed to growing the UK’s global reputation for regulatory best practice.
In response to the question from the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Rees, on how we will get more specialist teachers, specifically in mathematics, I support the Prime Minister’s aim to ensure that every young person has the skills that they need to succeed in life. Higher maths attainment will also help to grow the economy, creating better paid jobs and opportunity for all, which is why I also support his ambition to ensure that every young person studies some form of maths up to the age of 18.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, I thank him for his helpful comments on the importance of developing a global science partnership. I very much agree that collaboration is at the heart of being a science superpower. Last year we announced the first phase of the new International Science Partnerships Fund, underpinned by funding of £119 million over this spending review period.
My noble friend Lord Wei asked about building on the success of the Vaccine Taskforce. There will be ongoing lessons to learn from the Covid pandemic. We are demonstrating our ambition and delivering outcomes for patients through our healthcare missions. We have announced the chairs and details of the mental health and addiction missions as well as the cancer mission chair. These missions seek to replicate the success of the Vaccine Taskforce in areas where we face the greatest healthcare challenges, and illustrate the impact of industry-government collaboration.
In response to the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, who asked about ARIA’s progress, it has been established and is still in its early stage of development. Over the coming months, ARIA is recruiting its first cohort of programme directors, who will help to shape and inform the agency’s first set of research programmes. None the less, funding transformative research with long-term benefits will require patience, as prepared for in the agency’s design.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, I strongly agree with him on the vital importance of long-term thinking and learning the lessons from history. This is why the S&T framework necessarily takes a long-term view of the strategic outcomes that we seek to deliver in the decades to come.
The noble Lord, Lord Rees, brought up the risks of precarity for research careers. Postgraduate researchers are key to the success of research groups, and we are looking at how to support them through a new deal for PGRs. UKRI has undertaken a sector consultation as a first phase of this long-term programme of work, and the results will be published soon, in 2023.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raised the grant review of UKRI. DSIT is working closely with UKRI to implement the recommendations of the review while overseeing UKRI’s transformation programme to support improved governance and decision-making. The noble Baroness mentioned the recent changes to the ONS numbers on total R&D investment in the UK, as did the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth. It is good news that the ONS has improved its methodology for estimating R&D spend in the UK and that, as a result, we have moved above countries such as France in terms of R&D spend as a proportion of GDP. The Government are taking great strides in growing public R&D spend in the UK, with the Chancellor recommitting in the most recent Budget to growing public spend to £20 billion per annum by 2024-25.
A number of noble Lords have raised the recommendations of the recent Nurse review. The Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology outlined in her letter to the lead reviewer, Paul Nurse, that the landscape review would play a foundational role in delivering the UK Government’s vision and would set out a detailed response to the review’s recommendations in the coming months.
The noble Lord, Lord Mair, discussed industry engagement. The innovation strategy set out our plan for driving investment in UK R&D. We have increased funding for core Innovate UK programmes which are successful in crowding in private sector leverage, so that they reach £1.1 billion per year by 2024-25. This is over £300 million, or 66% more per year than in 2021-22, and will ensure that it can support business in bringing innovations to market.
In closing, I thank noble Lords for such a detailed, well-informed and wide-ranging debate. The newly created department will continue to address the challenges offered by the Select Committee and make clear progress to achieve our science and technology superpower ambitions, with a clear focus on delivery.
My Lords, may I say that I fully appreciate that the Minister is not personally involved in the negotiations over Horizon Europe? But in his remarks, he has referred to serious and lasting damage by non-association. Can he at least take back to the department the near-universal view in this debate that we should join and consider the fact that the Government specifically said after Brexit that this is the one thing that we want to join? Let us think of the consequences of our future co-operation with our European neighbours on a whole range of things if it turns out that we do not join what we said we wanted to.
My Lords, I thank all speakers in what has been a very interesting debate. I welcome and thank the noble Viscount, Lord Camrose, the relatively new Minister from a relatively new department, and agree that we celebrate the creation of DSIT. It does indeed address a number of the issues in our report—indeed, we rather hope that our report may have been a useful little prod to encourage the creation of the department. It was very good to hear the Minister say that we needed to challenge every part of government, and also good to hear that attracting overseas talent is so close to DSIT’s heart.
I hope that we are all impressed that the importance of this topic to Members of the House is indicated by how many people have been prepared to exchange a comfortable dinner and a chance to watch “Springwatch” for a four-minute speaking slot in the Moses Room. I hope that noble Lords get a comfortable dinner very shortly, after I have sat down.
The message that I hope the Minister will take back is that we are hearing of some good progress, but we must go further and faster—and we must go further and faster in terms of associating with Horizon. It was good to hear him recognise the damage that our lack of association has caused; the only fair and economically rationale conclusion—fair for UK researchers, fair for businesses and fair for taxpayers—is that we reassociate as quickly as possible.
We must go further and faster, too, in welcoming overseas talent. I hope that the meetings of the NSTC will be a forum in which Ministers from the new department and the Department for Education can bring home to their colleagues from the Home Office the importance of welcoming scientists and technologists from overseas. We heard from the Department for Education that they are looking at bringing in overseas teachers to cover our lack of teachers in areas such as physics and maths. They need to be supported by a Home Office that makes that an easy and welcoming process—which, we heard, is so clearly not the situation at the moment. I hope that the NSTC will be a forum where these issues can be debated, as the Minister has reminded us, in private. Perhaps some heads will be knocked together; we will be listening for the knocking.
We need to go further and faster in setting our targets for our spend on and investment in R&D. It is not good enough to chase the average level in the OECD: if we want to be a science superpower, we need to be at leading levels. We are seeing huge investments being made in the US, Europe and China, and we really need to up our game. We need to be doing more on stability and the long-term view.
As noble Lords have mentioned, we also need to go further and faster in thinking about how we improve diversity in STEM and see how that can help us with our STEM workforce shortage in many areas. I have to gently admonish my noble friend Lord Krebs for mentioning the outstanding work of Watson and Crick but failing to mention the outstanding work of Rosalind Franklin.
To conclude, it is a good start. We are pleased to see DSIT, which will have a have a big challenge. It will have the support of many people in this House in driving that challenge forward, but we need to go further and faster.
Committee adjourned at 8 pm.