Is it time to take the politics out of R&D policy?

The House of Lords has a new report out on the innovation landscape and James Coe wonders whether politics is holding back research and development policy

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

In its report Science and technology superpower: more than a slogan? the House of Lords Science and Technology committee is dismissive about the UK’s chances of meeting the target to increase the proportion of GDP spent on research to 2.4 per cent by 2027.

It is also pretty withering about the UK becoming a science and technology superpower by 2030. Largely because there is no shared understanding of what that slogan means or how it will be achieved.

Two point four per cent

The stated reasons for scepticism around meeting 2.4 per cent are many. There is not enough focus on a few areas where the UK can be considered to be genuinely world leading. There is no evidence that additional committees and bureaucracy are driving growth in research. Targets are unclear and diffuse. There are too many strategies from nuclear to space which don’t coalesce into a single approach. And the frenetic speed of policy making from the Industrial Strategy, to the R&D Roadmap, to the Innovation Strategy, to the Plan for Growth, means there is no single unifying R&D framework.

In his evidence to the committee David Willetts highlighted the nervousness within his own party about the government picking winners in R&D investment. Instead, the government has adopted an approach of choosing “families” of growth areas to focus on. Effectively, rather than picking winners the government in documents like its R&D Roadmap has picked broader research areas which they believe have potential.

The third way

The result of this approach is the creation of a mixed economy. On the one hand the government has ramped up public investment in R&D which will be delivered through UKRI’s funding settlement, QR funding, ARIA, and sector specific programmes. On the other hand, the government is reliant on the private sector to follow public funding with investments of its own.

The public investment part of this equation has been praised by the wider science community. There is no doubt that the government has put its money where its mouth is in massively ramping up public spending commitments for R&D. The current funding settlement is the most generous, in absolute terms, of any government ever.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee believe that it’s the market bit that isn’t functioning properly. This is down to two main reasons. The multitude of policy proposals discourage long-term investment from business – it is entirely understandable that businesses want to invest where public funding flows but that requires certainty that the funding will continue to reliably flow where the government says it will. And the government’s R&D targets are unclear which leaves priorities, and by extension funding, liable to being changed. There is also an underlying issue that if the government reduces public spending R&D funding could be an early target for cuts

A brave new commission

The issue with these proposals is that they are unlikely to be resolved whilst R&D spending remains part of a distinctly political process. The current R&D agenda is widely attributed to the PM’s former advisor Dominic Cummings and a Treasury team who were able to shake off their fiscal instincts to ramp up R&D spending. The case for funding university research alone would not have led to the current increases in funding were it not for the political imperatives of levelling up, securing Britain’s place in the world post Brexit, transitioning to net-zero, and so on. These core issues are then layered with policy announcements typical of any minister, roadmaps, moon shots, innovation strategies, and the like.

It is given no more than a fleeting reference but the select committee report hints at the possibility of setting up an independent statutory body to direct research funding over a longer time horizon. This would be equivalent to the National Infrastructure Commission which sets long-term infrastructure strategies within the government’s fiscal frameworks. The idea is that this would give confidence to the market that there is a long-term plan around infrastructure and that decisions won’t widely change from government to government. In the end, the report settles on the idea of an independent body who could monitor progress toward the government’s science and technology targets.

And why it won’t work

There is something which feels intuitively appealing about this kind of system. A National Research and Development Commission could simply hold the UK’s entire public R&D investment and then distribute it based on a loose set of government priorities. In theory, this would then give the private sector a degree of confidence in what would be done. Finally research decisions would be free from political interference, and could just follow the science.

The reason why this idea won’t work is that there is no body which can or should approach these questions with political neutrality. Take the example of Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission – wherein the whole commission resigned over lack of progress on child poverty. The new chair, Katharine Birbalsingh, is clearly not a politically neutral arbiter of social mobility policies.

There is no political incentive to redesign major levers of power, particularly when they involve billions of pounds of investment, and there is no guarantee it would lead to any greater consistency in policy. It would be hard, to continue our example, to argue that Alan Milburn and Katharine Birbalsingh have similar views on social mobility. In the same way that any commissioners over a period of time are likely to have different views on key issues like the trades offs in spreading research funding across the country

The solution put forward by the select committee for a statutory reporting and monitoring body is a sensible one. Market confidence is partially brought by policy but it’s also by actions. To give business confidence moving from the rhetoric of investment to putting in place infrastructure, binding spending promises, and ring fenced funding to government agencies, along with a coherent plan for the future, would do more for business investment than any amount of boosterism on the UK’s significant research strengths.

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