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UK’s ‘science superpower’ goal will fail without change in strategy, warn reports

The government’s frequently stated ambition to make the UK a “science and technology superpower” will fail without greater focus on results and more spending on research and development, according to two separate reports on Thursday.

The cross-party House of Lords science and technology committee criticised the “lack of an overarching plan for the strategic development of UK science and technology” and warned that “science superpower” would remain an empty slogan unless the new prime minister “shift[ed] the focus to implementation and delivery”.

Its report was echoed by one from the centre-right think-tank Onward, which urged the successor to outgoing premier Boris Johnson to “be more assertive at targeting R&D spending into areas of strategic strength” and was endorsed by several prominent Conservative MPs and former ministers.

In their report, the Lords committee said: “There is a profusion of sectoral strategies in areas such as artificial intelligence and life sciences that need to be consolidated into a logical whole. There is little sense of how they fit into an overall plan.”

Pointing out that George Freeman’s resignation last month had left the post of science minister vacant, the peers added that appointing someone new to the job — and making science a cabinet-level portfolio — must be a priority for the new administration.

Committee chair Baroness Julia Brown said it had “found a plethora of strategies in different areas with little follow-through and less linking them together”, adding that “numerous bodies and organisations” had “unclear or apparently overlapping responsibilities”.

The peers said the government had already damaged the UK’s international reputation by sudden cuts last year to research funded by Official Development Assistance. Continued failure to agree participation in the EU Horizon Europe programme “risks harming the UK’s reputation further and jeopardising the quality of its science base”, they added.

Meanwhile, Onward said Johnson’s successor should home in on “areas of strategic strength such as clean tech, AI and quantum computing”, warning that if they were “unwilling to reform science policy then they will put the UK’s national security and geopolitical leadership in jeopardy”.

The think-tank added: “To do this they will need to overhaul the role that research councils and universities play in funding scientific research and target more money at translating discoveries into products and services that will impact the real economy and our strategic goals.”

Freeman was one of the former ministers to endorse Onward’s report. He said: “The UK is already a science superpower in discovering new ideas and building thriving knowledge networks, but we could do much more to apply them for the benefit of . . . strategic and economic priorities.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are fully committed to cementing the UK’s position as a science superpower, and this is backed up by record levels of investment.

“The UK still wants to associate to EU programmes and continue to work with our European partners. If the EU’s delays mean the UK is unable to associate to Horizon, Euratom and Copernicus soon, we are committed to introducing a comprehensive alternative programme of international science, research and innovation collaborations.”

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