DSIT and the road to moulding Britain into a ‘Science Superpower’
By Jake Canton-Perry, Intern
Between the cost-of-living crisis, continuous strikes, growing backbench unrest, and the war in Ukraine, Rishi Sunak’s government has had a tough start to its tenure. This is perhaps why last month they have decided to relaunch the dream of turning Britain into a ‘science superpower.’
The dream was developed soon after Boris Johnson’s decisive 2019 electoral victory as part of his plan to create a Global Britain. Andrea Leadsom, the then Business Secretary, launched the project in December 2019 with the goal of Britain becoming a “global science superpower.” Since then, each successive Business Secretary and Science Minister has hailed the need to “cement the UK’s status as this superpower”. A Freudian slip, then, when Boris Johnson wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph in June 2021 claiming his Government was “restoring Britain’s place as a scientific superpower.”
After a prolonged wait, the Johnson government put its money where its mouth was and in March 2022 announced a major investment in research & development, specifically targeting AI, clean tech and life sciences. A statement by Kwasi Kwarteng, then Business Secretary, revealed this would amount to £22bn a year by 2024-25 and eventually rise to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.
The arrival of Rishi Sunak, and a return to quasi-normalcy, at 10 Downing Street has only added momentum to Johnson’s dream. The recent creation of a specialised Department of Science, Innovation and Technology has provided ‘Science Superpower Britain,’ with an injection of political capital necessary for achieving its primary responsibility of positioning “the UK at the forefront of global scientific and technological advancement.” Clearly, they were tired of saying “global science superpower.”
However, even with an entire Whitehall department focusing on this goal, there remains the question of whether it will have the desired impact of producing a big bang. A multitude of factors and pitfalls could obstruct progress.
Firstly, apart from simply restating its desire to become a superpower, the government's current plan rests on reintegration with Europe. George Freeman discussed as recently as mid-January the hope of producing a ‘Global British Science Superpower’ as a member of the EU’s €95bn research programme: Horizon Europe. Whilst Freeman did state there was a Plan B, but gave few details, the initial plan itself depends on Sunak being able to finalise his new Northern Ireland deal with the EU. Even then, membership of Horizon isn’t guaranteed.
The looming spring budget is the next hoop for DSIT to jump through. Whilst Kwasi Kwarteng drastically increased the R&D budget a year ago, he failed to predict the crash of the British economy and the arrival at Number 11 of a very stingy Jeremy Hunt. Rumours floating around Westminster whisper that before any increases to government spending, let alone tax cuts, Hunt plans to cut costs. Whilst the current thought is that this will be aimed at pensions by raising the age, R&D could be an easy target for the government to save a couple of pennies.
Moreover, Hunt is slowly being bombarded by demands from Conservative ministers and backbenchers for extra funding. This ranges from Ben Wallace's request for an extra £11bn for the defence budget, to Liz Truss’s Conservative Growth Group pushing for an expansion of free childcare and not to mention the ongoing cost of living crisis which will see a continued energy price guarantee for another year. Public R&D spending might not get cut, but it is certainly unlikely any extra funding to create a big bang will come DSIT’s way during the budget.
Lastly, and most importantly, is that the new department must now produce real policy suggestions for how it will mould Britain into a ‘science superpower.’ Potentially more difficult than it looks, due to DSIT having been encumbered with the all-encompassing Online Safety Bill that has been moving at a glacial pace through Parliament since its introduction in March of last year. The Bill's passage and the department finding its feet will take up most of the minister’s time until it gains the King's assent supposedly in late April, but quite possibly later. The Bill must pass before the summer recess and the beginning of a new parliamentary session in Autumn. Certainly then, there will be no policy initiating lift-off to superpower status until the end of this year and quite possibly into the next.
A lack of a concrete plan has always been a long-standing criticism of declarations of the creation of a ‘science superpower,’ ever since it was revealed by Leadsom. The current plan based on reintegration with Europe is ambitious, but certainly not concrete. With a severe tightening of the financial belt and a full legislative agenda for the new department, one has to wonder whether Britain may remain a scientific minnow for some time to come.