Chris Skidmore is MP for Kingswood and was Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister 2018-19 and 2019-20.
Having finally left the EU, 2021 is the year when the UK gets to define its role among the international community as an independent sovereign nation.
Four weeks in, signs are already emerging of how that independence matters: already the UK’s ability to strike its own deals over Covid vaccines seems to have paid dividends, with more people vaccinated in the UK than the rest of Europe combined. Freed from any additional bureaucracy set on the continent, Britain has been able to approve and procure vaccines at a faster pace, allowing for its vaccination programme to become one of the world’s leaders.
This isn’t intended to gloat; in a global pandemic, we need to ensure that every country has fair and equitable access to vaccine supplies to treat their most vulnerable patients. Merely an observation that the freedom to diverge is already making a clear difference when it comes to innovation. And it is innovation, science, and research that the UK can now really fashion as its USP and make our mark in the global world.
Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a chapter in Britannia Unchained on how we should look to Israel for developing an innovation rich economy – not only through investment in research, but in its ability to back the ‘buccaneer’ innovators, giving them the freedom to innovate, but equally, and crucially, the freedom to fail.
Ten years on, Israel’s success at being truly world leading by a country mile in rolling out its own vaccine demonstrates the power of having a technologically advanced economy that is able to be agile and adapt at scale.
We still have some way to go. Having committed to spending 2.4 per cent of our GDP on R&D by 2027, we are still hovering around the 1.8 per cent mark, compared to three per cent in the US or China, 4.5 per cent in South Korea, and to little surprise, 4.9 per cent in Israel. Yes, we have some of the most research-intensive universities in the world, and with one per cent of the global population we are still responsible for nearly 15 per cent of all research citations. Yet others globally are catching up fast.
This is the global race that matters. ‘Britannia Unchained’ can only happen if we give our innovators, researchers, new start up businesses, our scientists, and indeed our universities, the freedom and the investment to build back – not just better, but an entirely new economy that meets 21st-century needs by backing the new technologies of the future.
Boris Johnson well knows this. He has made Britain as a ‘global science superpower’ a centrepiece of his vision for the UK, right from the start of his leadership campaign. And so far he has delivered in spades investment for R&D: not only is government spending on it expected to rise from £12 billion per annum in 2019 to £24 billion by 2025, but we have seen major commitments from the Prime Minister to invest in huge new science and research infrastructure projects such as offshore wind, carbon capture and storage plants, and perhaps my favourite, a new fusion nuclear reactor, the Spherical Tokamak Energy Plant.
It gets too little commentary in the media, but Johnson has also demonstrated his ability to understand science and research is a truly global, international endeavour. New visa rules have been created to attract international scientists to the UK, along with waiving nationality rules around research grants. For all the concern amongst the research sector that Brexit would lead to Britain departing from European research projects, the deal that the Prime Minister struck went far beyond what many had expected or even hoped: association into Horizon Europe, the flagship research scheme from which the UK is the second largest beneficiary, to membership of the satellite earth observation programme, Copernicus.
And when it comes to space technology, Johnson chose not only to continue the UK’s membership of the European Space Agency, ESA (nothing to do with the EU incidentally) but also to increase our investment to a record £1.9 billion over four years.
What does this all have to do with 2021 in particular? With the UK’s presidency of the G7, together with our hosting of the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow this November, science and research can be a central part of Britain’s international leadership. It’s not yet two years ago since, as energy minister at the time, I signed net zero carbon emissions by 2050 into law — making the UK the first G7 country to do so. Yet in this space of time, the UK’s leadership on this issue has seen many countries such as France, South Korea, and now this month the USA, follow our lead.
This year, we can do the same. Not merely in climate change, where we have a real opportunity to set new national reporting targets, but in new technologies and science itself.
With a new American President that believes in the power of science and research, the Prime Minister has found an ally and common ground upon which he can transform into a special science relationship. Focus on ‘shared values’ is intended to be a key part of the G7— what better value could there be to focus upon than investment in research and innovation?
A new international research fund, a new alliance of research universities, the chance to forge new international science programmes dedicated to transforming and de-carbonising energy supply… the potential is enormous. Yes, we can build back better, but we can do so much more effectively if we research back better too.