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UK squandering potential as ‘science and tech superpower’, Lords say

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The UK’s potential as a “science and tech superpower” is being squandered due to the lack of an implementation plan from the government, peers in the House of Lords have said.

The Science and Technology Committee said the next administration “must maintain the commitment to R&D funding” with a focus on science and technology in order to drive a high-tech, high-growth economy.

In a new report, 'Science and technology superpower: more than a slogan?', the committee found that the UK’s science policy had been let down by short-termism and a proliferation of disparate strategies without an overarching vision.

“There are a large number of government bodies with unclear remits and interactions, which means that it is often unclear who owns a specific policy. At the time of writing, there was no science minister, which further blurs lines of accountability,” the report said.

The current target is to boost spending on R&D to 2.4 per cent of GDP (the 2017 average for OECD countries) by 2027 alongside a significant increase in public funding for R&D. But the Committee found that industry had been “insufficiently engaged” with the government’s strategy to leverage private sector funding.

Internationally, the government’s own-collaborate-access framework was meant to clarify policy on strategic areas of technology, but the Committee thought it was poorly understood and inconsistently applied.

Furthermore, the failure to associate with Horizon Europe – which is the EU's key funding programme for research – alongside cuts to Official Development Assistance have damaged the UK’s reputation as a collaborative partner, and risk damaging its science base.

The Committee said it wants a clearer science and technology strategy which sets out what it needs to achieve in its priority areas as well as consolidation of existing strategies. It also calls for measurable targets with a clear implementation plan and strategies that are sustained for the long term.

The Committee’s chair said: “Science and technology are crucial to the UK’s development and economic prosperity. Even with significantly lower spending than comparable countries, the UK’s excellent science base punches above its weight and can provide the tools to tackle major challenges like net zero.

“But science policy has been far from perfect. R&D is a long-term endeavour which requires sustained focus and an implementation plan. But we found a plethora of strategies in different areas with little follow-through and less linking them together.

“There are numerous bodies and organisations with unclear or apparently overlapping responsibilities, and more are being added in the form of the National Science and Technology Council and the Office for Science and Technology Strategy. It is often unclear who is accountable for individual policies and, critically, for delivery.

“The government has suggested areas of reform to increase private sector investment in R&D such as public procurement for innovation, regulatory reform, and R&D tax credits. But these areas are perennial suggestions. New ideas – and specific details – developed with business are needed if this time the outcomes are to be different.”

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