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Government Science and Technology Framework launched

The new Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology is proposing another in a series of grand government statements on research and innovation. James Coe finds what is new
This article is more than 1 year old

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

At 9am on Saturday morning the Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology (DSIT), posted a mocked-up Chat GPT question to tease out the launch of a new development in the world of science and technology policy. This morning, replete with AI inspired front cover, the Science and Technology Framework came tumbling into the world.

OK computer

Before we get into the details of the framework let’s first look at the wider picture of what’s going on in science frameworks and strategies. Back in July 2020 the government published the R&D Roadmap. This document was an attempt to outline how universities, businesses, and the public sector could work together to ensure the UK could achieve its potential as a science superpower.

As well as being a global force the government has also dedicated significant time to articulating the impacts of research closer to home. In a speech to think tank Onward Minister for Science, Technology, and Innovation George Freeman set out an agenda of bureaucracy cutting, cluster backing, boosterism including 30 innovation clusters outside of the Golden Triangle.

These ideas run parallel to the more supply-side reforms announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in his speech to the CBI last November. Sunak promised a pro-business audience a set of pro-business reforms. This included maintaining the public funding of research, regulatory reform, investment in innovation, relaxing visa rules, and increasing tax credits.

Together, the ideas put forward by Sunak and Freeman may not be the set of research proposals that you may choose but they are relatively coherent. On the one hand the UK’s research policy is about state intervention where there has been market failure. In the case of the research and science landscape that is the inefficient allocation of human and economic capital which is limiting competition and economic growth. A sensible approach is therefore to intervene through measures like investments in clusters. On the other hand businesses are the largest investors in R&D so putting incentives for them to grow their work in this field makes sense.

Fitter happier

Overlaying these proposals then comes the Science and Technology Framework. The framework is the first major policy announcement by Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan. On launching the framework she spoke to innovation and technology as the future of productivity and wages, healthcare, reducing energy prices, jobs, and economic growth. Again, we should absolutely debate the wider policy direction, but looking back even five years ago there was not the same breadth of investment or engagement with this agenda by the government.

The framework itself focuses on how technology and innovation can be translated into the real economy. Happily, it also makes clear that there is cross government department responsibilities on aspects of delivering it.

The framework is a precursor to yet another (broader) delivery plan due in Summer 2023. There are ten strands in total which for brevity are not repeated in full here. However, there are some critical areas that deserve specific attention for universities. The first is that strand one identifies five critical technologies. These are: artificial intelligence, engineering biology, future telecommunications, semiconductors, and quantum technologies. One task will be to ensure these identified strengths match up to existing investment plans and other science strategies.

For instance, we’d spotted that the Industrial Strategy (one for older readers there!) grand challenges had been withdrawn at the start of this month. The new framework is a lot less “mission focused” than the Greg Clark era documentation – but we note that artificial intelligence and data was one of the first four challenges and has made it right the way through into the new “critical technologies” list. Life sciences and green technology are very much bolted on to the side of the framework, but were front and centre in the industrial strategy.

There is an explicit target to raise domestic public investment in R&D outside the Greater South East by at least 40 per cent. Although not made explicit within the short framework one of the mechanisms will presumably be the incentives mentioned on procurement reform and increasing finance for innovation activities. Away from home, the framework commits to the delivery of the £119m earmarked for the International Science Partnership Fund. Alongside a Horizon extension to June 2023 it seems the government is still yet to make up its mind on whether Horizon association or Plan B is the preferred option.

Elsewhere, there is investment in infrastructure, skills development, and making better environments for research to take place. In short, there are lots of the ambitions that have been articulated elsewhere, some new reforms and clarity on technology investment, and some pockets of new funding.

No surprises

The next step in this process is to convene various government agencies and departments with a view to setting out further action in Summer 2023. For universities, there are clear signals here that initial reforms will be geared around incentivising business R&D. In turn, we may expect further scrutiny on how universities are translating their research with business into the real economy.

Though DSIT is very much in the lead here we see a lot of language about drawing work together across the whole government. This is a noble aim, but we know from past attempts that announcing it is a lot easier than actually making it happen in messy reality.

For the government, there are clusters, moonshots, strategies, frameworks, and ambitions to be a science superpower. In the future the hard decisions will be around what the UK should stop working on or investing in, in order to narrowly focus on the areas that will make the biggest difference to wages, health, productivity, and economic growth.

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