Chris Skidmore MP was Science and Research Minister between 2018-2020 and co-author of Britannia Unchained.
10 years ago, I was sat around a cramped room in Westminster with four members of the Cabinet – the current Foreign, Home, Business and Justice Secretaries. We had recently launched our first book, After the Coalition at Conservative Party Conference, which attempted to chart a course away from what seemed like endless compromise with our Liberal Democrat partners.
Now we were planning a second – not on domestic policy, but instead on how Britain risked missing out on the huge transformational changes on the international stage, if we did not begin to chart our own course as a nation that looked to Asia and other emerging economies for lessons on how to deliver future economic growth. Rather than accept a diminishing role for the UK, why not begin to invest in a strategy that could maintain our international influence?
So Britannia Unchained was born, as each of us decided upon a chapter we would write. I chose what seemed an obvious and essential narrative: the need for the UK to take science, R&D and innovation seriously. By 2011, government investment in science had basically flatlined, while our investment in research and development as a proportion of overall GDP had slipped backwards, to an embarrassing 1.6 per cent of our total national spend.
Meanwhile, other nations such as the US and China had bold plans to be reaching three per cent and above, spurred on in part to the emerging science and tech powerhouses of South Korea and Israel, who were spending around 4.5 per cent of their expenditure on investment in the technologies of the future.
As a result, both nations had transformed their economies from largely agrarian to high-tech within a few decades, bringing in international private investment while at the same time becoming global leaders in electronics, computers and communications. Establishing clusters of high-tech businesses where none had existed before, this investment in R&D resulted in an entire upskilling of their populations, making them some of the most educated in the world.
It shouldn’t be hard to see, I argued then, the importance of why investing in research and science effectively was the same as investing in your future success as a nation in a century dominated by technological change. We could be another Israel or South Korea too – but only if we took a long term and strategic vision of where we wanted the UK to be. We had some of the best universities and researchers in the world, particularly in the life sciences, but they were managing to achieve extraordinary results with little money.
That needed to change. Fast forward seven years, and as Science and Research Minister, I had the opportunity to make that investment, securing the Government’s manifesto commitment to raise its spending on R&D from £12 billion a year to £22 billion by 2025.
In turn, this had the potential to leverage in additional private research investments from international companies into the UK, thanks to the establishment of R&D tax credits, ideally to the tune of around £70 billion a year – allowing the UK to finally reach around 2.4 per cent of its GDP being spent on science and research by 2027, a target set back in 2017. Even with this investment, the UK would only sit in the middling league of the OECD average, watching as other nations continued to pull ahead.
The UK could still be another Israel or South Korea, if we set ourselves a strategy and stuck to it. But that most important commodity of all in politics, time itself, is slipping away. The Spending Review is Boris Johnson’s last chance to deliver a successful vision for increased investment in R&D. The money promised in 2019 has yet to materialise, and if there is not a clear plan from the Chancellor this week, then the Prime Minister’s vision of the UK as a ‘global science superpower’ would have been torn up by the Treasury.
And with but days until the UK takes the leadership of the international stage at COP26 in Glasgow, expectations are set that it will be investment in new renewable technologies, nuclear power and innovation in carbon emissions reductions that can deliver net zero by 2050. None of this can happen without the UK stepping up to make investments in research, which is desperately needed.
The alternative is that we slip not only further behind in the global race, watching as South Korea, Japan or China disappear over the horizon, we will start to go in the wrong direction: researchers and companies choosing to place their faith elsewhere, in countries that recognise the integral purpose of science to future economic growth.
2021 has demonstrated the incredible potential that science, research and development has not only to transform lives, but to save lives also: the UK has been rightly praised for its early investment in its vaccine programme, which was made possible thanks to our life sciences industry and high levels of existing R&D spend. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, we are standing on the shoulder of giants, of those generations before who made those strategic choices to invest in pharma in the UK.
What we cannot afford to do is to end 2021 by not continuing to place our faith in research and development, the investment for which must flow. As I wrote back in Britannia Unchained a decade ago, we can build a new future for the UK by recognising that future should be grounded in innovation and research. That future, and the Prime Minister’s vision of the UK as that science superpower, risks being lost this week if we do not act now.