UK creates science & tech office with $10bn funding pledge

By on 25/06/2021
UK PM Boris Johnson aims to build on the UK’s success in backing vaccines at an early stage, pledging funds for experimental science and tech. Picture by No 10 Downing Street

Boris Johnson’s government has announced a pivot towards science and technology as a means to deliver “solutions for the public good”, in a bid to capitalise on the UK’s success in backing effective vaccines during the pandemic.

Drawing a straight line between the UK’s science sectors and future strategy, Johnson has appointed chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance – who’s been prominent in shaping policy and promoting public health messages throughout the crisis – to the new posts of chief technology adviser and head of a new Office for Science and Technology Strategy (OSTS).

Johnson himself will chair a new ministerial National Science and Technology Council, which will “set strategic direction on the use of science and technology as the tools to tackle great societal challenges”.

According to the 10 Downing Street announcement, OSTS, the ministerial council and Vallance will act together to drive policy initiatives across Whitehall to ensure the UK has the science capability needed to meet its ambitions. Target areas include reaching net zero, developing new cancer treatments, and “keeping our citizens safe at home and abroad” – a reference to defence, security and cybersecurity.

The new focus on science will, the government says, seek to apply the UK’s risk-taking approach to vaccine development in other fields of economic growth and technological development, “setting  bold visions [and] acting with speed”.

Calculated risks

In May 2020, the UK government invested £65.5m (US$91m) in the vaccine being developed at the University of Oxford, after the university signed a licensing deal with AstraZeneca. The investment meant that the UK secured a promise of 100 million doses of the yet-to-be-proven vaccine. In July 2020, it invested a further £100m (US$139m) to redevelop a vaccine manufacturing site in Essex to accelerate production of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

Johnson says that OSTS will “review the technology bets the UK should back and prioritise for strategic advantage”. In an accompanying article in The Telegraph, he highlights the risks of failing to act – citing the UK’s historic lack of effort in developing 5G communications technology, and the dependence on Chinese expertise this has created. 

Johnson also writes that current government investment in technology research and development stands at £14.9bn (US$20.7bn) in 2021-22, adding that he intends to increase this to £22bn (US$30.6bn) a year. And he contrasts this spending with underwhelming investment in scientific R&D from the UK private sector, describing this as “a fraction of the OECD average” and a “wretched fact”.

Skewing spending?

However, the new initiative has raised doubts in some quarters, with one expert on science policy and governance telling the BBC that valuable research that falls outside Whitehall’s areas of focus could end up receiving less funding and attention.  

James Wilsdon, digital science professor of research policy at Sheffield University, said that researchers themselves are “typically better-placed to know where opportunities lie”.

“It also raises questions about how much of the extra investment that the government has promised by 2025 will be channelled towards Whitehall projects, and how much will go through (the science funding body) UK Research and Innovation and into the mainstream of university research funding.”

In The Telegraph article marking the new policy launch, Johnson says that the UK owes a “debt” to its scientists that will be repaid by fully embracing science and technology in the future – through increased investment, supportive policies, and making them an educational priority.

He writes: “We have spent too long in a state of semi-detachment from science, as though it was something intimidating and remote from our lives. Too many people in our country lack training in science and technology, too many children think STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects are not for them.

“Most glaringly of all, this country has failed for decades to invest enough in scientific research, and that strategic error has been compounded by the decisions of the UK private sector.”

He also argues that science should not be divorced from politics, while pre-emptively rejecting the idea that the UK government is seeking unhealthy levels of control over independent researchers.

 “I am not suggesting that government should try to exercise scientific judgement, or impose some dogma on the scientific world – like the deranged genetic theories of Stalinist Russia,” he writes; but there are “nuts we know we need to crack, for the sake of our health and happiness. If the covid experience has taught us anything, it is that government does have a role in making demands, in explicitly framing the challenges we hope that science can meet.”

Picking winners?

Other target areas mentioned in the article are hydrogen manufacture, net zero aviation, and “threats and opportunities in cyber, in space and in the field of AI”.

The new moves are in-keeping with an existing policy direction initially set by now-departed PM adviser Dominic Cummings. In February, the government announced the establishment of an Advanced Invention and Research Agency (ARIA) with an £800m (US$1110m) investment.

At the time, the new agency was described as being “independent of government” and led by researchers. ARIA’s mission was described as turning “transformational ideas into new technologies, discoveries, products and services – helping to maintain the UK’s position as a global science superpower”.

ARIA was modelled on the US’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which is often credited with advancing research into autonomous vehicles, GPS, drones and the internet.

About Elaine Knutt

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