It’s certainly been a busy month for UK research. There’s been the budget and the first outline of the plans for the new Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT). This was joined by the Nurse review of R&D that has been in the pipeline for two years. And the news that the UK and EU have found a political solution to Brexit’s Northern Ireland border issues also looked like a win for science – finally clearing the way (almost) for the UK to associate to Horizon Europe. Yet just as senior researchers across the country breathed a sigh of relief, it appears that the prime minister may have got cold feet about joining the EU’s huge collaborative research scheme.
What to make of all this then? The budget looks to have been something of a non-event for research this time around. DSIT’s new framework is more interesting, however, as it provides us with the first insight into the priorities of the new department that will be overseeing science. It gives us 10 transformational priorities for the sector, as well as five critical technologies that it will prioritise. As ever, only time will tell if is this is actually a step-change or more of the same. Ten years ago this government was talking up the ‘eight great technologies’ of the future. Only one of those – synthetic biology – is now found among the five critical technologies. I’ll leave readers to decide whether this strategy, among the many that have come out in the last decade, will be the one to catapult the UK to scientific superpower status.
The most interesting development looks to be the review of the entire UK research landscape by Paul Nurse. Long-time readers may remember that Nurse’s review of the research councils in 2015 led to the formation of UKRI, so his policy proposals are taken seriously at the highest levels. This time around he’s made policy prescriptions on making the UK a research-intensive economy. These include fixing funding for universities, increasing investment in research to match global competitors and tackling bureaucracy. He also stresses that to make a difference these proposals would need to be implemented wholesale, avoiding ‘cherry-picking’ or ’piecemeal’ implementation.
One of the most important points, given the current state of politics, is that cross-party agreement is needed on long-term backing for research. With polls suggesting the current government is likely to be out in the next two years, there’s the danger any changes made now could be swept away by a new, incoming administration. Nurse has prescribed the medicine the UK needs to take if it’s serious about becoming a ‘science superpower’. The question is whether the political establishment as a whole will want to swallow it.