Chris Skidmore is a former Universities, Science, Reseach and Innovation Minister between 2018-2020, and is MP for Kingswood.
Goodbye 2020: perhaps not the worst year in history as Time would have us believe, but it’s certainly up there. As the earth completes its orbit around the sun, 2021 won’t offer us the chance to begin afresh, sadly, but it does offer the opportunity to set a different course.
The year ahead is a critical one for the United Kingdom, now as an independent sovereign state, as it seeks to step out of its former EU status, to forge a fresh identity.
How we are perceived during the next year ahead will shape how the world views the UK for the next decade. Fortunately, we have two major international responsibilities, in the Presidency of the G7 and as hosts of the United Nations COP26 climate conference, which offer the chance to for us to shine on the global stage – if we wish to seize it.
To do so, we only need to look at the map highlighting where the Covid vaccine has been administered. The UK has powered ahead, both by investing over £12 billion on vaccine development – more than the entire EU put together – but also by moving quickly to allow trials to proceed at pace.
No-one really expected a vaccine to be ready this year but, necessity being the mother of invention and all that, the awesome power of R&D and the human capacity for innovation was unleashed in full – thanks to early strategic investment. In doing so, Boris Johnson has achieved his first ‘moonshot’, doubling down on the UK’s international reputation when it comes to cutting edge science and research.
Add to this our commitment as the first G7 country to sign net zero carbon emissions into law by 2050 – again the UK leading where, over the past year France, Japan, China have followed – we have the potential to dominate the global climate stage.
I know first-hand, as a former Science, Research, and Innovation Minister, just how passionate and committed Boris Johnson is when it comes to this agenda. It’s why, even before the pandemic broke, he announced that we would double our research and development budget from £9 billion a year to £22 billion annually by 2025.
So the phrase, ‘global science superpower’ aren’t hollow words when coming from his mouth. The Prime Minister is absolutely committed to making the UK the place to invest in science and research, from enhancing our capabilities in space – where we purchased an entire growing fleet of satellites in the multi-million deal with OneWeb earlier this year – to ripping up the VISA rules to allow international scientists and researchers to come to the UK, with the offer for the first time of applying to UKRI funded programmes.
New investments in projects from a fusion nuclear reactor to a fleet of carbon capturing factories have been agreed. What we have seen from Johnson is perhaps the greatest commitment to science and innovation from a British Prime Minister since Harold Wilson’s White Heat of Technology speech.
Here, however, we must learn the lessons of history. Much of Wilson’s commitment came to nothing, or got bogged down in badly-placed decisions and investments made by Whitehall – not to mention turgid, out of date industrial strategies that looked to protect the past, not imagine the future.
We cannot afford to make the same mistakes again. Science and research thrives not on micro-management by government, but on freedom. The freedom to decide research priorities, yes— which is why we rightly enshrined the Haldane principle into law— but perhaps more importantly, the freedom to fail, and to fail hard.
The idea of failure might be an anathema to Whitehall, but it is the guiding principle behind the new Advanced Projects Research Agency, or ARPA, heralded by Dominic Cummings. In spite of his departure, it should remain a manifesto priority: we need its approach to risk, and indeed failure, that has benefitted many unthinkable yet now mainstream innovations in the USA.
We need, too, to extend this principle of freedom when it comes to wider support for innovation and research: new regulation-reducing, bureaucracy-slashing, legislation in the form of a ‘Freedom to Innovate’ bill would be a powerful step in showing that the UK was serious about scientific research, not merely in the form of increased investment or bringing global research talent to its shores – but that we were prepared to create the right climate, ecosystem (call it what you like) that gave the best possible chance for scientific breakthrough.
Our universities and research institutes have in the past been magnets for researchers from across the world to come to the UK. They have done so not to practise individual endeavours, but to collaborate.
This message of collaboration is one that we need now: yes, we have left the EU, but that should not prevent us from continuing to form and strengthen international scientific partnerships, including associating to the Horizon research programme, just as Israel does. In any case, we should be expanding international partnerships, and using next year, particularly at the helm of COP, to make 2021 the year Britain defined its identity in the world as being steeped in the values of innovation and research.
To truly make the most of what might be a make or break year, we must face beyond the immediate crisis that the pandemic has unleashed upon us. Research and innovation have provided us with the chance to escape from this Covid hell hole. Boris Johnson is right to place his, and our, faith in its remarkable power to forge a new, unimaginable tomorrow, if the UK is to truly succeed in a year which will define its future.