Freeman sets out his agenda

George Freeman has set out a local agenda on clusters and infrastructure and an international agenda on new partnerships and attracting investment

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

In a speech to the think tank Onward Science Minister George Freeman explained the UK’s global science strategy beyond Horizon.

As with any speech from a minister, particularly on the futuristic and fascinating in science, there was a lot on the moonshots, the future of technology, and the discoveries that will push the UK into the future. This is all interesting and undoubtedly important but Freeman’s vision was the most compelling when it focussed on the less glamorous, and dare we even say relatively mundane, world of the hard grind of science policy.

Freeman’s speech looked at both the UK’s national and international position. Nationally, Freeman believes the UK’s science policy should be about economic growth, resilience, and influence. Freeman explicitly acknowledged that “You don’t get to do world class science in a shoestring” and that the “The last decade has proven beyond all reasonable doubt that we need a more resilient, sustainable, model of economic growth.”

The notion that the UK’s economic growth model is broken or defunct is a theme that has been picked up by all sides of the Conservative Party. Michael Gove in his work on levelling up acknowledged that public spending is necessary to improve places and drive private investment. Liz Truss took the view that it was treasury orthodoxy, that is to say conservative views on balancing budgets and taxing and spending, that had caused the UK’s slow growth.

Freeman has set out a path that borrows from these two schools of thought. On the one hand he sees national growth in science as contingent on removing “daft” regulations, using post-Brexit freedoms, and procurement reform. On the other hand he has identified 30 innovation clusters outside of the Golden Triangle to nurture and spread the UK’s science strength. Essentially, his view of growing the economy through science is about targeted investment, growing clusters, infrastructure investment, and encouraging industrial partnerships.

Internationally, association to Horizon remains the priority for the UK. In his speech Freeman noted that he is yet to meet a member state that does not want the UK to associate to Horizon but to his mind the barrier to association is due to political actions by the European Commission. This is the view that the UK is being prevented from associating to Horizon as political punishment for actions over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

To Freeman’s mind a post Horizon global offer will be focussed on retaining and attracting talent; innovation including moonshots; deepening bi-lateral and multilateral partnerships; and investment in infrastructure such as computing. It is of course worrying that so much time has passed without association but the high level ambitions are both likely agreeable to the sector and anchored within the UK’s existing capacity and strengths.

In an interesting note Freeman mentioned that he believed the UK could have reached 2.8% investment in R&D. This is higher than previous estimates and it would suggest that the ONS has underestimated the size of the research economy by a significant amount. This underestimate is as a result of the undercounting of research activity being undertaken by SMEs. This is important not only in challenging the basis in which the UK has constructed research policy but important in setting a higher baseline from which the UK should set research investment targets. This is particularly important if the UK is to be globally competitive outside of Horizon.

In short, with all the moonshots, strategies, reviews, and nervous interregnums on the future of research policy the future seems to boil down to two simple ideas. Nationally, policy will be about driving economic growth through clusters, regulation reform, and infrastructure investment. Internationally, it will be about building new relationships, investing in international competitiveness for people and projects, and attracting inward funding.

The months ahead will be crucial for science policy and by extent the whole UK economy. The ideas are solid and while still in broad brushstrokes likely popular. It is when the details, trade offs, and spending commitments come into view, that the real debate will begin.

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