One of the current UK government’s most used soundbites describes its aspiration for the country to become a ‘science superpower’. This slogan gets an airing at almost every policy announcement related to research and development. But for all the talk of its ambition for the research sector, the government often seems reluctant to take on board scientists’ advice.
Take, for example, the ongoing stand-off around the UK’s Horizon Europe membership. The research community is unanimous: participation in the world’s largest research programme is a good thing. Being able to lead international collaborations tackling the planet’s most pressing issues is priceless. Access to established research networks is crucial for scientists’ careers and for their ability to address global emergencies like Covid-19 and climate change. But despite the signing of the Windsor framework in February, which appeared to pave the way for the UK to rejoin the programme, another six months have gone by without a resolution.
Another example is the government’s stance on policies designed to limit climate change and protect the environment. In the same month in which researchers reported that the world had reached its hottest ever temperatures, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak suggested that his government was prepared to roll back and potentially abandon climate policies that could add costs or cause people ‘hassle’.
The International Energy Agency says that no new fossil fuel sources can be drilled if the planet is to avert the worst effects of climate change. This is echoed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s findings that carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure are already incompatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement. But, in the face of this consistent guidance, the UK government has committed to grant ‘hundreds’ of new North Sea oil and gas licenses.
And, as Chemistry World reported earlier this month, a recent government decision to release greater numbers of carbon allowances than was originally expected has experts fearing that it will hobble investment in decarbonisation technology. A report published in August by the UK Energy Research Centre also shows a lack of clarity in the government’s plans for attracting the needed investment for a clean energy transition. Similar analysis by the energy industry’s trade association, Energy UK, suggests that, of the world’s largest eight economies, underinvestment will see the UK achieve the slowest growth in low-carbon electricity by 2030.
The ‘worrying hesitancy’ of UK ministers to fully engage with net-zero commitments has the government’s own climate advisors saying that the country has ‘lost its clear global climate leadership’.
Perhaps instead of playing to what polling shows is a minority of climate-sceptic voters, the government should consider working on a new ‘superpower’ of its own: actually listening to the things scientists say.