Since the 1980s, UK science policy has adhered to a mostly arms length science model, driven by curiosity, and disproportionately funded by taxpayers. It has generated a broader and deeper science base than any comparably sized nation and the UK’s science system is without doubt one of the UK’s greatest national strengths.
It is also an asset that we could exploit more effectively. Within the term “science superpower” lies not only a desire to create knowledge but an intent to mobilise it in the UK’s interest – either economically, technologically or militarily. But this necessarily requires policymakers to treat scientific knowledge, networks and institutions not just as public goods but as national capabilities in an increasingly competitive and threatening world.
The question is how the UK can do this without undermining excellence elsewhere. This paper seeks to answer this question by identifying four characteristics of science superpowers that should guide the UK’s ambitions.
First, science superpowers prioritise academic foundations. That is to say, competitive R&D investment, well-regarded research institutions and strong intellectual property assets.
Second, science superpowers have deep knowledge networks, in that they host the best research, attract the most promising scientists, and lead global regulation of technologies.
The third trait of science superpowers is absorptive capacity: the ability to absorb ideas within the real economy for economic benefit.
Fourth, science superpowers typically exert their scientific influence overseas through technology exports – the sale of high-tech products and services, including intangibles, overseas.
So the UK has strong academic foundations and knowledge networks from which to supercharge its scientific ambitions. But if ministers are to be successful they will need to address other strategic weaknesses. The first step is obviously closing the UK’s long-term R&D funding gap. But we should also be taking steps to strengthen absorptive capacity in the economy, boost specific high-tech exports and ensure that the UK benefits from postgraduate science training and UK-origin patents.
In practice, this means reforming the UK science ecosystem to meet five key tests, which we explore in further detail later in this paper:
Now is the right time for policymakers to raise their ambitions for British science. In the wake of the pandemic and invasion of Ukraine, when science policy is more salient than any time since the Cold War and national security is front of mind for voters, policymakers have a unique opportunity to assure the UK’s position as a science superpower for decades to come. We must take it.
“The COVID-19 pandemic showed us just how important science is for our health security. We need to seize this moment and invest in science and technology to solve the other problems we face such as climate change and the energy crisis. The new Prime Minister should put science and technology at the top of their agenda, lest we be unprepared for the next global crisis.”
Rt Hon Lord Hague, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (2010-2014):
“An excellent contribution to what should be our most vital national debate. Ensuring science is at the core of our society and economy is indispensable to the UK’s future prosperity. Failure in this field would be fatal to future growth.”
George Freeman, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences (2014-16); Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science, Research and Innovation (2021-22)
“The path to faster growth and better wages starts and ends with science and innovation. The UK is already a Science Superpower in discovering new ideas and building thriving knowledge networks, but we could do much more to apply them for the benefit of the UK’s strategic and economic priorities. This excellent report sets out a bold plan to lift our scientific ambitions and secure our future – it is essential reading for the new Conservative Prime Minister.”
Rt Hon Lord Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science (2010-2014):
“Onward are right to be investigating what it means to be a science superpower and how we can achieve it. I hope that the next Prime Minister reinforces the commitment to that objective and draws on the policy options emerging from this exercise.”
Professor Sarah Main, Executive Director at Campaign for Science and Engineering:
“I am excited about science and technology being at the heart of the UK’s future, in a way that improves people’s lives and livelihoods. I welcome Onward’s exploration of the possibilities and practicalities of that future and I encourage the public, politicians and the R&D sector to join this conversation.”
Lord O’Shaughnessy, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences (2016-18):
“In an increasingly uncertain world the UK needs a renewed and long-term focus on its economic strengths, and none is more important than our world-leading science base.
“The Government has promised to turn the UK into a science superpower, and while some progress is being made we are still not using the huge purchasing and convening power of the state to pull through innovation. For example, we spend over £150 billion a year on the NHS but very little of this funding goes towards R&D. A modest reallocation of spending towards activities like clinical trials and scaling digital technologies would provide a major boost to the UK life sciences sector.”
Lord Bethell, Minister for Technology, Innovation and Life Sciences (2020-21):
“Working at the frontline of the pandemic innovation, I realised at first hand the huge power of the science at our great universities, and the lack of depth in our industrial capacity to turn that science into deployable solutions. This report is an excellent start to a conversation about how we can use our traditional strengths at the lab-top to turn Britain emphatically into one of the world’s great science superpowers.”
Beth Thompson MBE, Associate Director of Policy at The Wellcome Trust, said:
“This report reflects the growing recognition of the importance of investment in science and innovation. It is integral to determining what sort of country we want the UK to be.
“As we enter the last month of the leadership debate there is still time to make the bold and urgent commitments needed to continue to push scientific boundaries and realise opportunities for the UK’s prosperity and health.”
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