Does the UK’s Science & Innovation Strategy go far enough?

Dr. Ramsay Richmond is Executive Manager at the QMB Innovation Centre in Whitechapel. He has spent over 25 years in the European life sciences industry covering research, consultancy and business development. This article gives the views of the author and is not the position of Queen Mary BioEnterprises Ltd. or Queen Mary University of London.

Does the UK’s Science & Innovation Strategy go far enough?

The UK’s Science and Innovation Strategy, launched in December, was heralded by the government as the most significant commitment to the sector in decades.

But does it go far enough and, in this uncertain economic political climate, will the same commitments be in place after the general election in May or, as with health and education, will the sector just become another political football?

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced £5.9 billion of funding to science capital from 2016 to 2021. Around £3 billion will go to support individual research projects, as well as the UK’s world class laboratories, and provide funding for international subscriptions, while an additional £2.9 billion will go towards large capital projects to support scientific “grand challenges”.

There’s cash a plenty for the Sir Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials totalling £235 million;  £113 million towards big data at the Hartree Centre in Daresbury; £95 million for European Space Agency programmes, including Britain’s lead role in the next European Rover mission to Mars; £31 million for a new Energy Security and Innovation Observing System, including a subsurface centre at the former Shell site in Cheshire; £60 million to extend the capabilities of the National Nuclear Users Facility and £20 million towards an innovation centre on ageing in Newcastle.

Ahead of the big announcement, expectations were running high for a document that had been heavily talked up by ministers, and which had been the subject of extensive consultation. Yet on closer inspection the strategy lacks any real nitty-gritty. This may be down to the veracity of the as yet unknown business cases, but, as a shared venture with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the document was strangely bereft on all three counts.

It’s good and right that the government acknowledges that more needs to be done to boost the UK’s standing as a leading scientific nation. The sentiment is spot on. But a strategy, by definition, is a means to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty. While we have bucket loads of uncertainty, the strategy falls well short of ring-fencing the science budget or setting long-term goals for science investment.

There is no partitioning into short, medium and long-term goals, each with clearly defined sets of metrics and deliverables. Innovation is mentioned repeatedly but, in the UK, this is historically well upstream to actual market delivery.  Specifically, there is no linkage between innovation and IP-driven jobs that stick to the UK, and there’s no mention of easing the bottlenecks in the system which, as I have often said, requires just a small fraction of the funds pledged here.

Still, it’s very good news that Hauser’s Catapult Programme will continue. However, there is no indication what the programme will be doing in the second half of its time window to speed deployment and create IP-driven jobs, rather than just secretariat and ops jobs. More crucially, it also fails to mention job creation which is fundamental in diversifying the economy and spreading economic prosperity beyond the southeast of England.

There is also no mention of the growing consensus on under-spending in UK physical infrastructure estimated to be in the region of £60 billion and what synergies could be made between building physical infrastructure and deploying it across all areas of the economy, while promoting innovation.  For example, in areas like high-speed broadband and fast, efficient airport rail transport links.

One could argue that this announcement is old news. George Osborne, the chancellor, had already stated that there would be £5.9 billion of funding between 2016 and 2021 in his Autumn Statement. But any future government may have very different spending plans. The animus between the coalition parties is patently obvious and this will only intensify as we get closer to polling day. Beyond the ballot box, the air of uncertainty and a lack of detail means anything that is said now is little more than a big fat IOU for where this country needs to be in 20 to 30 years from now.

Looking ahead, it will very interesting to see what emerges from the Spending Review after the general election in May and if these commitments are officially linked to key performance metrics and the UK’s broader strategic goals, whatever they are.