This article is more than 1 year old

The UK alone part two

Horizon association is still up in the air so James Coe turns to the USA to see how the special relationship is turning out
This article is more than 1 year old

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

The future of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy is the future of university research partnerships.

While universities are autonomous institutions and, within the bounds of the law and regulators, they can work with whoever they want – they do not set foreign, economic, or security policy.

These policies are also not always aligned and universities can find themselves marooned in a policy hinterland. For example, China is the UK’s single most important partner for research and student mobility. China is also the UK’s single biggest strategic risk in IP theft and industrial espionage.

Government’s have reconciled foreign and economic policy with a belief that engaging with countries with different ideologies of our own through trade, freedom of movement, and the free exchange of ideas, will eventually build a more liberal global consensus. In America, the story runs that after the end of the Cold War liberal capitalist states had triumphed and through engagement former communist states and autocracies of all kinds would move toward liberal capitalist democracies.

This theory hasn’t proven to be true.

Instead, there is simultaneously a growing economic enmeshment between the UK, China, and the USA, and an increasing political distance. In the middle comes universities stretched between competing geo-political forces. In the case of interventions by the government on security issues this can be stretched to breaking point.

The grapes of wrath

In the announcement for the new Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology (DSIT), the government described DSIT’s mission as ensuring “the UK is the most innovative economy in the world and a science and technology superpower.” Innovative, is an important feel good, ambiguous, we can all agree, word here as in global terms the UK has a small research footprint.

The UK’s research is undoubtedly globally excellent. Let’s make no mistake that for a country of this size it is remarkable that the UK is so good at so many areas of research. Simultaneously, the US and China account for around 50 per cent of global R&D expenditure while the UK accounts for around 2 per cent. Any future partnership outside of Horizon may be done as scientific peers but not as economic peers.

In keeping with the UK’s new partnership with Japan there will be significant expectations that there will be closer working with the USA as a historic neighbour and a country with a comparable political system and culture.

Currently, the USA remains ahead of China and Germany as the UK’s single largest partner for collaborative research. It is the UK’s single most important trading partner and accounted for 16 per cent of the UK’s total trade from the end of 2021 to the end of 2022. There is no easy way to break down total trade activity but “other business services” which includes R&D, professional and management consulting services, technical services, and trade related services, were the single largest UK to USA export. This is all without an overarching research framework between the two countries.

There are also already significant academic partnerships between the UK and USA. UUK highlights the Liverpool-Georgia strategic partnership as supporting PhD mobility, leveraging £8.5m of funding over a five year period, and attracting an additional $15.75m of grants from the US Department of State. There are a panoply of collaborative research projects from alzheimers, to air toxins, to aeroplane turbulence. And more generally, it is impossible to imagine tackling the great threats to humanity without combining the intellectual powers of both countries with the might and scale of the US economy.

Of mice and men

For a number of reasons the US is the obvious partner for the UK to fulfil its global science ambitions. It is familiar, it has been historically reliable, and there is a relationship that stretches across a shared language, approach to democracy, and economic outlook, that neither the UK or US share with the other great global power, China.

However, just because expanding this partnership is obvious does not mean that it is straightforward.

For a start the UK-US post Brexit trade deal has faltered. Currently, the government is signing agreements on a state by state basis. The first of these agreements was signed with Indiana and includes research commitments and investments in green technologies. Agreements have also been reached with North Carolina and South Carolina, while a further deal with Oklahoma is in the pipeline. Clearly, stimulating exports and the industrial R&D which comes with it is a positive thing, it remains to be seen how far reaching state by state agreements can be.

The second challenge is that as well as being a partner the US is a R&D competitor in some places. It is also a competitor with an archimedean lever that can move the world.

In August the Biden administration signed The CHIPS and Science Act into law. This directed $280bn of additional funding over the next decade into catalysing research and growing the manufacturing base for semiconductors. The purpose of the semiconductor investment is to grow the USA’s competitiveness in their manufacturing base and buffer them against any disruption in supply chains. It is a move against global risk but it also exposes the limitation of the global supply chains.

The EU has also put together its own version of the CHIPS act and it is willing to waive state-aid rules where public investment would catalyse private investment. We are not only witnessing a coordinated global response to a security threat through investment in R&D but we are also witnessing the global death of the idea that public investment crowds out private investment. Outside of the EU the UK is neither part of these schemes, large enough to make industrial investment which will have a global impact, or effectively enmeshed within the USA’s strategy.

If the future of R&D is about more onshore production then Britain could truly find itself alone.

East of eden

The UK is already a research superpower but it is increasingly not an economic superpower. Effective R&D is research, translation, and commercialisation, with national and international partners, working effectively.

If the key question of working with China is the extent to which differing political and economic systems can be accommodated the question with the US is perhaps what are the economic incentives to work with the UK other than a shared history.

It might be that a shared global outlook is enough to sustain new R&D partnerships. For example, the 2021 AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) deal on security collaborations provides a model for R&D developments tied closely to global security.

It may be that in lieu of Horizon Association UK universities and businesses are forced to more eagerly expand partnerships elsewhere. It is an optimistic view of the world but it is not impossible to imagine growing education ties between UK and US institutions. After all, partnerships are already blossoming without a bespoke research trade framework.

Or there could be something else entirely that changes the dynamic of this relationship. Should China become the preeminent global economic force with all of the tensions that brings there could be new possibilities for UK-US agreements. A resolution over the Northern Ireland Protocol may also open the door to the US.

In dubious battle

Outside of the EU, and outside of Horizon, the UK is yet to find its place in the world. It is not enough to say the UK is brilliant at research. This is already well and widely acknowledged.

The real test is the extent to which trade agreements can accommodate R&D where there are security and political tensions, and whether there are sufficient economic incentives to partner with the UK as it forges a new path in the world.

Within this dynamic universities are both central to the economic future of the UK and political collateral in an increasingly complex global picture.

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