This is the third part of an FT series asking whether Boris Johnson is pursuing reforms that will change the face of Britain. Follow British politics and policy with myFT to be warned when new articles are published.
In a rolling countryside about 50 kilometers west of London sits Harwell Campus, a clear symbol of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ambition to make Britain a ‘scientific superpower’.
Around £ 3 billion in public and private sector investment has turned the 700 – acre campus in rural Oxfordshire into a hub for space, clean energy, quantum energy and life sciences research and development.
The latest addition to the campus is the UK Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Center, a collaboration between the university and industry supported by £ 196 million in government funding to boost the growth of the UK vaccine industry.
The coronavirus crisis underscores Britain’s years of scientific strength, rooted in research by the country’s leading universities. Oxford is working with UK pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to develop a leading Covid-19 vaccine.
But the pandemic also revealed some UK shortcomings, including a lack of manufacturing capacity in vaccines and other high-tech areas.
“The British research base is already making us a scientific superpower, but it is not enough,” said Sir Jim McDonald, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the country’s leading professional body for engineers. ‘We need to transfer the strength to high-value technology, engineering and manufacturing. With a virtuous circle of growth between the research base and industry, Britain can become a superpower in science, technology and innovation.
Judging by Johnson’s rhetoric – and his pleasure in donning a white coat and visiting laboratories in Harwell and elsewhere – he has been more enthusiastic about science and technology than any British prime minister for half a century.
“We want the UK to regain its status as a scientific superpower and thus reach a higher level,” Johnson said. written in June, as he refers to his flagship initiative to limit regional inequalities. “The UK has so many of the necessary ingredients: the academic base, a culture of innovation, the wonderful data source of the NHS, the capital markets.”
The government’s spending targets seek to end the UK’s position as a backlog in the G7: public investment in R&D is set to rise from £ 14.9 billion this year to £ 22 billion in 2024-25. Total UK R & D spending by the public and private sectors will rise from 1.7 per cent of gross domestic product to 2.4 per cent by 2027 – the average for industrialized countries.
And that of the government innovation strategy, published in July, provided insight into pastors’ focus on industries of the future and where they want to utilize scientific skills.
The strategy identifies seven broad “technology families where the UK can develop strategic advantages”: advanced materials and manufacturing; artificial intelligence, digital and advanced computers; bioinformatics and genomics; engineering biology; electronics, photonics and quantum; energy and environmental technologies; and robotics and smart machines.
Some of these technologies are being pursued by the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, a new public body outside the existing government framework that will fund high-risk, high-reward projects. It was the brainchild of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser.
Although Aria’s initial budget of £ 800 million over four years represents a small part of total UK R & D spending, the agency is expected to take a stronger approach to science in Britain – according to the US Advanced Research Projects Agency and his successors, especially the Pentagon Darpa.
The recruitment of the CEO of Aria and the chairman of the board is underway.
“What Aria is going to do is very open,” said Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser. ‘A lot depends on the first CEO and what he or she thinks is the right area. The challenge is to give the director enough independence and empowerment to be imaginative and brave. And do not overload it with bureaucracy that inevitably brings everything back to conservatism. ”
Although Vallance was very visible during the pandemic that led to Britain’s scientific fight against Covid-19, he was also strengthening the government office for science, which he heads at the Department of Business, Energy and Industry. strategy.
A new National Council for Science and Technology, led by Johnson, will “make decisions about long-term strategic aspects of the application, use and support of science and technology — to decide which areas need multi-year support,” says Vallance.
A new Strategy for Science and Technology, which includes a board, includes a ‘scientific insight’ feature to ‘give us an objective way to look at our position in different areas’, Vallance added.
The fields must be divided into three categories. The top priority will be technologies that the UK should own, with full capacity from early research to development to production. Then comes ‘together’, with activities in the UK and some elsewhere. Eventually there will be ‘access’, where everything is bought from abroad. “We can not be good at everything,” Vallance said.
But leading British scientists have expressed serious doubts about whether and how the government’s funding ambitions for the sector can be achieved.
Several saw the budget cuts imposed on British research and innovation, the government’s main R & D funding agency, as a bad sign this year. In 2021-22, UKRI will spend £ 7.9 billion, £ 700 million less than last year.
The biggest single reason why UKRI’s budget will fall this year was the government’s decision in March to reduce spending on overseas development aid.
“The ODA cuts have a particularly large impact on research, which is very troubled by the rhetoric of the ‘scientific superpower’,” said Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, Britain’s senior scientific body. “Research needs sustained long-term investment so that everyone can plan ahead.”
Researchers are looking for a clear path to £ 22 billion in public R&D investment by 2024-25 in Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spending review, which will be unveiled next month, although they acknowledge that there is a fierce battle for money is in Whitehall after the pandemic.
‘We can end up with a [spending] a settlement that is trumpeting at the major level as the biggest investment in science for a generation, but which is not pleasing to university researchers, ‘says James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at Sheffield University. “University research will have a very slow increase.”
British universities receive a larger share of government funding from the government than in most other countries, where enterprises and specialized research institutes are relatively more prominent.
Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, a biomedical research center, is reviewing ‘the landscape of British organizations undertaking all forms of research, development and innovation’ at the request of the government.
‘If we get there [total UK R&D spending worth] “2.4 percent of GDP by 2027, two thirds of the growth should come from private investment,” says McDonald.
One important way to encourage R&D in the private sector is through tax credits, with different schemes for small and large businesses that together are worth more than £ 5 billion a year to the industry.
HM Revenue & Customs is exploring the future of these incentives. Although there were a few academic criticism of their effectiveness as a stimulus for R&D, the industry in general favor their expansion.
“We have had some difficult years and without R&D tax credits we would not have survived,” said John Dawson, CEO of Oxford BioMedica, one of the oldest biotechnology companies in the UK, which played a key role in the development of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. “They can make the difference between success and failure.”
Another way the government encourages corporate R&D is by helping science firms collaborate with each other and with universities, especially by nurturing research campuses like Harwell.
A smaller and more focused example is Babraham Research Campus near Cambridge, which houses 60 early life sciences businesses around the Babraham Institute of the state-funded Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. More than £ 100 million in public money and ten times more private investment funded the campus.
“The research campus movement is progressing well and working very well in the UK,” said Simon Cook, interim director of the Babraham Institute.
Can Boris Johnson change the face of Britain?
Because Johnson wants to be in power for a decade, the FT is investigating whether he is pursuing reforms that will have a lasting impact on the UK.
Part 1 Can Johnson turn his equalize slogan to a substantial series of domestic reforms?
Part 2 Will the plan to provide skills for workers succeed through a refurbishment of further education?
Part 3 What does the proposal to turn Britain into a ‘scientific superpower’ mean in practice?
Part 4 Does Johnson have a detailed plan to put the UK on track to achieve zero emissions?
Part 5 What does the reform of immigration rules mean for business and the economy?
But if Johnson wants science to help the UK widen inequalities in the region, he needs to channel more R&D spending beyond the ‘golden triangle’ that stretches between London, Oxford and Cambridge.
Currently, 52 percent of spending by government and universities goes to the east and southeast of England including London – home to 36 per cent of the British population.
Examples of research campuses that have successfully emerged outside the Southeast include Glasgow City Innovation District and Sci-Tech Daresbury and Alderley Park in Cheshire.
Such developments highlight the building blocks that fall into turning the UK into a true scientific superpower. Much now depends on achieving the government’s spending targets for the sector.
George Freeman, appointed as Minister of Science in Johnson’s ministerial reform, said: “Increasing public spending on R&D to £ 22 billion is a cornerstone of our overall commitment to total R&D spending to 2.4 per cent. of GDP. “
Sarah Main, chief executive of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, an independent research advocacy organization, said the government was on the right track.
“Boris Johnson has the right ingredients to strengthen Britain’s position as a scientific superpower,” she added. “If the government provides leadership and enough funding to get them together, it can achieve its ambition.