Ministers are likely to fall short of their pledge to turn the UK into a “scientific and technological superpower” by 2030, according to a multi-party peer group, which described the government’s science policy as “inconsistent and unclear”.
The House of Lords science and technology committee said the compromise risks becoming “an empty slogan” without a “laser focus on implementation”.
Peers also expressed concern about the government’s failure to name a new science minister after George Freeman resigned and stepped down on July 7. A replacement is not expected to be appointed until the Conservative Party elects a new prime minister.
They asked Boris Johnson’s successor, who is expected to be announced early next month, to prioritize the appointment of a minister of science, research and innovation to a cabinet post.
The peers concluded that the government’s international science policy “has been somewhat inconsistent”, making the UK “seem unreliable and unwelcoming”. They added: “There is an urgent need to rebuild international relations.”
In a report titled Science and Technology Superpower: More Than a Slogan?, politicians also said that failure to secure association with Horizon Europe “risks further damaging the UK’s reputation and undermining the quality of its scientific base.” ”.
Joining Horizon Europe, which previously provided British scientists with vital funds and research grants, was agreed in principle after the UK’s departure from the EU, but has now been delayed.
The UK is currently being barred from joining the £82bn research program because of the dispute over post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland.
Amid these delays, new UK research programs and grants have stalled.
Leading European scientists are no longer looking for positions in British labs, while the 44 UK scientists who have received Horizon grants have been told they will no longer be funded unless they move to an EU country.
Committee chair and fellow member of the committee, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, said the “government’s science policy is far from perfect”.
“On the international stage, the failure to partner with Horizon Europe and the recent cuts in Official Development Assistance have damaged the UK’s reputation,” she said. “The UK cannot be an isolated scientific superpower; relationships must be repaired.
“UK science and technology remains strong and respected around the world, but it will not deliver its full potential to the UK with inconsistent and unclear government science policy. A new administration must maintain the ambition for science and technology and develop a clear delivery plan.”
Speaking in a personal capacity during an online briefing on the report, Lord Krebs told the PA news agency: “People work in teams all over the world and therefore isolating ourselves from the largest international collaborative program is a remarkably inept thing to do. and is it related to Brexit? Yes, clearly it is.”
He added: “There is a danger that the UK will become a bureaucracy superpower rather than a science superpower.”
The peer report acknowledged that the government “increased public funding for UK Research and Innovation, government departments and other research funders” and “established the National Science and Technology Council as a cabinet committee and created a new body, the Office for Science and Technology Strategy, to prioritize science and technology”.
But he added: “Despite the welcome steps and commendable rhetoric, we are concerned that the government is not on track to fulfill its ambitions. Evidence of sustained focus, implementation and delivery is lacking. Furthermore, it is unclear how value is added by the many layers of bureaucracy.”
The report also noted that the government “does not appear to have a comprehensive plan for the strategic development” of UK science and technology and “has not identified the areas of science and technology in which it wants the country to specialize”.
Peers warned of the effect of inflation in eroding increased public funding for research and development, adding: “History tells us that research and development budgets are often cut in times of economic hardship. This must be avoided.
“A clear and consistent science and technology policy has the potential to unlock significant benefits for the UK, and many of the pieces are in place to meet the government’s ambitions. But there must be a laser focus on implementation, or the scientific and technological superpower will become an empty slogan.”