A New National Purpose, the latest report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change sees former Prime Minister Blair join forces with former Conservative party leader Lord Hague in a cross-party call for the state to reshape itself around the idea that science and technology should be driving innovation across all the functions and activities of government. And there’s plenty in there for universities to digest and consider.
The core idea of the report is the imminence of what’s sometimes called the fourth industrial revolution – the idea that novel technologies are fundamentally transforming the way we live – paired with the sense that the UK is falling behind in the global technology arms race. With AI, biotech and climate tech given as examples, the UK lacks, according to the report’s authors, the kind of sustained focus and investment in a science and technology ecosystem that can harness the transformative power of technology to benefit the country and its citizens.
The sheer scale of the key claim means that the opening pages are something of a breathless canter through multiple technologies and globally comparative data points – it’s not an argument that could realistically be considered nuanced. But even if you’re not at a point where you can make a judgement on the accuracy of the specifics, there’s resonance in the idea that there’s going to have to be some kind of tipping point on tech.
The institutions of the state need not only to catch up with commercial companies in terms of offering a better and more seamless digital user experience, but there also needs to be some meaningful political leadership efforts to organise things so that the benefits of tech are shared more equitably and securely (and the risks mitigated, too). A national strategy and coordinated effort from government, the report argues, increases the likelihood that this work is done rapidly, coherently, and impactfully – if the political will is there.
Reforming the state
The opening gambit is reforming Treasury thinking that tends to inappropriately micromanage R&D spending with a “public accounts” mindset rather than a “public investment” one – and ensure those with scientific expertise are part of the conversation on expenditure. This would include placing UKRI and ARIA on longer term spending cycles of seven to ten years.
The report welcomes the creation of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, and urges the creation of an office for science and technology in No.10 to embed science and innovation across the whole of government.
In part this would include creating sovereign AI systems and supercomputing capability that would allow for the adoption of AI across all public services – for example, creation of personal health data systems that could support diagnosis, improve accessibility of services, personalise treatment, and guide public health decision-making.
Higher education and research
The report rehearses the vital importance of expanding higher education and increasing the overall skills of the general population. It suggests creating a High Potential Student visa category to tempt those studying in priority areas to remain for longer in the UK. It also argues that more should be done to diversify STEM, and encourage/support STEM students to secure science and technology jobs including through quicker approval of courses with cutting edge content in universities, and wider use of industrial placements.
Recommendations on increasing public investment in R&D are a no-brainer, but the report also suggests reducing bureaucratic burden on research universities by cancelling TEF and KEF, and dividing up REF into categories of institution rather than comparing universities with different missions by the same criteria.
UKRI would have less oversight and be subject to less bureaucracy, but the traditional research council disciplinary silos would be broken down to enable the creation of new “bespoke” research councils based on strategic needs. Experimentation with funding methods is suggested to encourage high performing teams, reduce waste in the system, and develop innovative early- and mid-career researchers rather than reproducing existing hierarchies in funding awards.
At system level, the report considers there to be an over-reliance on universities in the research ecosystem and recommends the expansion of Catapult networks and the creation of a new network of innovation labs focused on nascent fields of technology at pre-commercial stage – as well as support for distributed research “collectives” of (frequently) newer researchers to uncover hidden talent.
There’s a lot more about unlocking growth equity and fostering international partnerships, and global responsibility in the use of tech – including increasing the proportion of international aid spent on R&D, creating multilateral efforts to develop AI safely and in line with democratic values, alignment to EU research programmes, and eliminating barriers to academic spinout companies.
What if we took it all seriously?
The problem with this kind of report is that it’s very hard to believe it will come to anything. The specific recommendations aren’t that dissimilar to the government’s R&D roadmap in that they are trying to tackle known issues, to some extent with known solutions. Plus, notwithstanding the shiny new department, it’s hard to believe that the Westminster government or any political party has the will to set out such a bold and coordinated agenda – even if it wanted to. Voters might want optimism about the future and bold visions – but we’ll also find it difficult to believe any of it is feasible given the last decade in politics.
But, putting that aside, I’m convinced that the general argument of the report – that bitty interventions won’t make a difference and real, focused leadership is what’s needed – is correct. There’s a lot of scope for universities to take the initiative on some of the arguments here to provide additional depth of analysis and contribute to the public debate – not only via the research literature.
There’s a case to be made that the problems of the British state can sometimes be seen inside universities as well – multiple departments working on similar problems but from different perspectives, a long-established hierarchies that limit fresh thinking, and central “bureaucracy” that’s designed for accountability rather than supporting innovation.
“Digital transformation” reached the status of cliche years ago, but despite knowing that tech offers new opportunities and places new demands on universities, I’m not convinced that the sector in general has entirely grasped the challenge of reshaping university activity around science and technology innovation across the teaching, research, service, and administrative functions.
Some universities have taken on the challenge of technology in an integrated way, building their own ecosystem to meet objectives and change practice across the breadth of missions. Some have appointed leaders at pro vice chancellor level to set out the vision for change and coordinate the approach. I’d like to see what it looks like when a university seizes control of the science and technology agenda – and what lessons the HE sector could offer to the British state when it does so.