Boris Johnson outside number 10

PM to chair group that will encourage science and tech breakthroughs

Image credit: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he will chair a group that will capitalise on British scientific and technological breakthroughs, with a view to applying research for societal benefit.

Johnson hopes that the group will build on the achievements of rapid domestic coronavirus vaccine efforts and identify other areas in which R&D can benefit from public funding through a similar approach. The government has frequently mentioned the potential of British engineering and technology – particularly in areas such as space – as central to the success of post-Brexit Britain.

“From discovery to delivery, our vaccination programme has proven what the UK can achieve at scale and at speed,” said Johnson. “With the right direction, pace, and backing, we can breathe life into may more scientific and technological breakthroughs that transform the lives of people across the UK and the world.”

“That’s why I’m establishing a new ministerial council and office at the centre of government, so we can realise the limitless possibilities that research and technology has to offer and cement the UK’s place as a global science superpower.”

The group – which will take the form of a new National Science and Technology Council – will provide strategic direction on the use of science and technology to tackle societal challenges and boost prosperity, a government statement said. It mentioned that economic benefits could be derived from green technologies (net-zero aviation, hydrogen, and power storage), treatments to “cure” (as opposed to treat) cancer, and technology to “[keep] our citizens safe”.

The group will be chaired by Johnson and co-chaired by Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance. Vallance will also be appointed National Technology Advisor, and head a new Office for Science and Technology Strategy based in the Cabinet Office. Its first task will be to review the “technology bets” the UK should prioritise for strategic advantage.

Sir Patrick commented: “The new Office for Science and Technology Strategy will put science and technology right at the heart of policy-making and strengthen the way we work across government to reinforce the position of the UK as a science superpower. I look forward to working with the National Science and Technology Council to help identify cutting-edge research and technologies that will deliver strategic advantage for the UK.”

The government aims to increase its spending on R&D, investing £14.9bn in 2012-22, rising to £22bn by 2024-25, and committing to raising total investment to 2.4 per cent of economic output by 2027. It is also in the process of establishing a high-risk, high-reward research funding agency called Aria which it hopes will pursue areas of science and technology with the potential to generate ground-breaking discoveries and transformative technology in the long term.  

Dr Mike Galsworthy, head of Scientists4EU, addressed Johnson on Twitter: “You have damaged British science more than any other PM in history. Brexit itself has lost the UK [hundreds of millions of pounds] on Horizon 2020 through chaotic uncertainty alone and removed our joint-first-place status on that programme. And then you cut [the] UKRI budget.”

Mark Smith, partner of innovation incentives at Ayming UK, welcomed the announcement but added: “For the government to succeed in its innovation ambitions, we have to upgrade our innovation infrastructure. Funding agencies must be agile, our incentive schemes must be as effective as possible, and we must create innovation ecosystems that leverage our world-leading academic institutions as well as private enterprise. Only then will we be best positioned to be a science superpower.”

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