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SCIENCE PROGRAMME

Wired for Success

Reforming Whitehall to support science and technology
Allan Nixon, Anna Dickinson, Anastasia Bektimirova
August 1, 2023
Wired for Success

This report makes clear that the Government can do more to keep pace in the global science and tech race. The actions it calls for should guide further Whitehall reform to deliver the Government’s ambitions to be a Science Superpower.

Reforming Whitehall and empowering the new Science Department is essential to the success of the UK’s science superpower ambitions.

In the first half of 2023 the UK Government transformed its approach to science, creating a new Science Department, setting out a series of new strategies, and establishing an AI-focussed Foundation Models Taskforce backed by £100 million.

But to become a genuine science superpower, the Government needs to go further. This paper sets out a roadmap to complete the rewiring of Whitehall and realise the potential of science and technology to boost the nation’s productivity, transform public services, and compete internationally.

Four principles should guide the next phase of reform: making science and tech central to the Government’s agenda, making clear choices to achieve strategic goals, ensuring Whitehall is coordinated, and consistently pursuing plans over time.

Four Principles

  1. Centrality. The creation of DSIT is a signal in itself, and the Prime Minister has a clear personal focus on technology. But Whitehall drive is still lacking. The National Science and Technology Council has only met sporadically in recent months and lacks the firepower to drive cross-Whitehall delivery, UK investment in science trails our competitors despite rises in the R&D budget, and insufficient steps have been taken to improve the Government’s long-term technology horizon-scanning capabilities. Despite putting a premium on pace, Whitehall bureaucracy still slows down progress: the procurement of exascale compute power is set to go through the Treasury’s lengthy business case process. Proposals for new lab space remain stuck in planning red tape.
  2. Choices. The formation of DSIT has been paired with a clear articulation of priority technologies, action plans and funding commitments. Yet big gaps remain. An action plan for engineering biology is yet to be published. The 2021 National AI Strategy is outdated. Funding for semiconductors is far lower than for comparable nations. And there is a lack of clarity more broadly on how the Government assesses foundational technologies and makes decisions on what sovereign capabilities are needed. More concerning still, the Government has not been clear on how it expects to bring together levers and funding from outside DSIT to support its science ambitions. Without an explicit, coordinated approach to driving innovation via industrial strategy too many science and technology policies risk falling short.
  1. Coordination. There is now a Science Secretary who has the relevant funding and policy levers in a single department. Cross-government accountability is aided by named Cabinet leads for each of the DSIT framework’s strands of activity. But ensuring other Whitehall departments act with urgency remains a challenge, and the Government has done little to improve its relationship with regulators and the science community. The digital and tech regulation landscape is fragmented, with an apparent disparity between the objectives of the Government and regulators. The Government last provided Ofcom with a “Statement of Strategic Priorities” in 2019, when Theresa May was in No.10. DSIT’s relationship with UKRI and research councils needs urgent reform to ensure projects and places secure the right funding in a reasonable time.
  1. Consistency. It remains to be seen whether the Government can avoid the chopping and changing of strategies and plans that have typified recent decades. To stand the test of time, these reforms must be embedded firmly into the structures of Whitehall. The Government must keep up the pace  – taking a series of practical steps in the coming months to ensure that Whitehall can deliver on the science and technology agenda.

The Government has shown that it is willing to make big bets in aid of its science superpower ambitions – it cannot now rest on its laurels. There is a chance for the British state to be uniquely prepared for the technological revolution we are beginning to experience. Ministers must seize it.

Recommendations

  1. Set an ambitious new headline R&D target of 3.5% of GDP by 2035
  2. Create a Technology Futures and Intelligence Unit, modelled on Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures
  3. Exempt the Science Department from lengthy Treasury spending controls
  4. Designate research labs as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) 
  5. Update the 2021 Innovation Strategy with a fully funded set of Innovation Missions 
  6. Move responsibility for universities out of the Education Department and into DSIT
  7. Appoint a permanent secretary-level Director of the National Science and Technology Council
  8. Delegate powers to the DSIT Secretary to approve all departmental R&D spending plans 
  9. Reform and empower the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum
  10. Review research council funding processes to slash approval timelines

Four Principles

  1. Centrality. The creation of DSIT is a signal in itself, and the Prime Minister has a clear personal focus on technology. But Whitehall drive is still lacking. The National Science and Technology Council has only met sporadically in recent months and lacks the firepower to drive cross-Whitehall delivery, UK investment in science trails our competitors despite rises in the R&D budget, and insufficient steps have been taken to improve the Government’s long-term technology horizon-scanning capabilities. Despite putting a premium on pace, Whitehall bureaucracy still slows down progress: the procurement of exascale compute power is set to go through the Treasury’s lengthy business case process. Proposals for new lab space remain stuck in planning red tape.
  2. Choices. The formation of DSIT has been paired with a clear articulation of priority technologies, action plans and funding commitments. Yet big gaps remain. An action plan for engineering biology is yet to be published. The 2021 National AI Strategy is outdated. Funding for semiconductors is far lower than for comparable nations. And there is a lack of clarity more broadly on how the Government assesses foundational technologies and makes decisions on what sovereign capabilities are needed. More concerning still, the Government has not been clear on how it expects to bring together levers and funding from outside DSIT to support its science ambitions. Without an explicit, coordinated approach to driving innovation via industrial strategy too many science and technology policies risk falling short.
  1. Coordination. There is now a Science Secretary who has the relevant funding and policy levers in a single department. Cross-government accountability is aided by named Cabinet leads for each of the DSIT framework’s strands of activity. But ensuring other Whitehall departments act with urgency remains a challenge, and the Government has done little to improve its relationship with regulators and the science community. The digital and tech regulation landscape is fragmented, with an apparent disparity between the objectives of the Government and regulators. The Government last provided Ofcom with a “Statement of Strategic Priorities” in 2019, when Theresa May was in No.10. DSIT’s relationship with UKRI and research councils needs urgent reform to ensure projects and places secure the right funding in a reasonable time.
  1. Consistency. It remains to be seen whether the Government can avoid the chopping and changing of strategies and plans that have typified recent decades. To stand the test of time, these reforms must be embedded firmly into the structures of Whitehall. The Government must keep up the pace  – taking a series of practical steps in the coming months to ensure that Whitehall can deliver on the science and technology agenda.

The Government has shown that it is willing to make big bets in aid of its science superpower ambitions – it cannot now rest on its laurels. There is a chance for the British state to be uniquely prepared for the technological revolution we are beginning to experience. Ministers must seize it.

Recommendations

  1. Set an ambitious new headline R&D target of 3.5% of GDP by 2035
  2. Create a Technology Futures and Intelligence Unit, modelled on Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures
  3. Exempt the Science Department from lengthy Treasury spending controls
  4. Designate research labs as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) 
  5. Update the 2021 Innovation Strategy with a fully funded set of Innovation Missions 
  6. Move responsibility for universities out of the Education Department and into DSIT
  7. Appoint a permanent secretary-level Director of the National Science and Technology Council
  8. Delegate powers to the DSIT Secretary to approve all departmental R&D spending plans 
  9. Reform and empower the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum
  10. Review research council funding processes to slash approval timelines

Former Minister for Innovation, Lord O’Shaughnessy:

“The Government should be commended for the reforms to science and tech that it brought in earlier this year — but it must go further. Onward’s report sets out the vital next steps needed if the UK is to seize the science superpower mantle.”

Former Chief Scientific Adviser for National Security, Sir Anthony Finkelstein:

“This is an important report that takes stock of the recent substantial reforms to the UK’s science and technology system. It identifies the achievements but also clearly signals where these reforms have, to date, fallen short. It sets a – rightly –  ambitious forward agenda that can act as a jumping off point for the next phase of reform by HMG and beyond.”

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