Delivering a science and technology strategy for the UK

The Royal Society of Edinburgh responds to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on delivering a science and technology strategy for the UK.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), Scotland’s National Academy, welcomes the opportunity to respond to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into delivering a science and technology strategy for the UK. Given its status as a national academy representing the sciences and other disciplines, the RSE is inherently interested in the delivery and application of science and research, particularly in promoting national resilience, tackling complex challenges such as climate change and biodiversity collapse, and improving the lives of individuals. The RSE is supportive of UK Government’s commitment to prioritising science and innovation and improving its impact and looks forward to following and contributing to this agenda as it develops. The working group preparing this paper was comprised of RSE Fellows, all of whom have significant knowledge of the science, research and innovation space and occupy various leadership roles across academia and business.

Key Findings

The UK can already be classed as a science superpower by many measures. Where it falters is in its ability to translate research into commercial applications, economic productivity and anticipatory policy or regulation. Where such translation does take place, it is often slow and hindered by unnecessary bureaucracy and a complex funding landscape.

Historically, science and technology companies have been hugely underrepresented in domestic markets, which in turn has driven many promising start-ups to relocate abroad where conditions are more favourable. The UK needs to recognise the value of these companies from the outset and either incentivise them to continue operating or incentivise business to become early adopters in the UK.

Funding remains a key barrier to the UK meeting its full potential as a science and technology superpower. The UK is poor at leveraging additional private investment into science and technology, which would help bridge the chasm between early and late-stage research that stalls many projects. Funding to universities, colleges and institutes has also been reduced and the funding that is available can be concentrated across a small pool of regular recipients, preserving the status quo and stifling both creative thinking and productivity. There is also comparatively little funding earmarked for research to inform the development of public policy and services.

Being a science superpower also necessitates a strong element of public engagement and awareness-building.

Current funding structures and academic progression pathways do not adequately recognise or reward interdisciplinarity, cross sector working or innovation, particularly those that are predicated on cumbersome panel review processes. If the UK is to become a more nimble and modern science superpower, it must find ways of streamlining the innovation pipeline, doing away with unnecessary bureaucracy and outdated metrics while still preserving its reputation for high-quality research.

While the Haldane principle is vital in ensuring the quality of scientific outputs, there could be scope to consider how present modes of funding might be diversified to allow a wider range of projects at different levels of maturity and complexity to be supported and which are not subject to the same peer review standards.

Greater fluidity between academia and industry should be actively encouraged to facilitate the reciprocal exchange of key skill sets and support the commercialisation of academic research.

Fundamentally, the UK must precipitate a culture change that minimises the risks associated with failure. Successful innovation is by its nature built on multiple cycles of trial and error.

The UK has traditionally had close associations with the global scientific community, attracting high-calibre foreign students and staff and, likewise, exporting domestic talent to forge and strengthen collaborations abroad. However, recruitment of international graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and independent academics has suffered in the wake of Brexit due to higher fees, concerns around immigration requirements and career progression, and a heightened atmosphere of xenophobia. The UK has long enjoyed positive working relationships along the North/South axis. Regrettably, funding cuts to Official Development Assistance have undermined this relationship and the UK should make an effort to identify alternative means of supporting these important collaborations.

Download this Advice Paper