Rocket science

Think tank: Onward

Author(s): Matthew Burnett; Maria Priestley

August 4, 2022

This report from UK think tank Onward looks at how can the UK become a science superpower?

Since the 1980s, UK science policy has adhered to a mostly arms length science model, driven by curiosity, and disproportionately funded by taxpayers. It has generated a broader and deeper science base than any comparably sized nation and the UK’s science system is without doubt one of the UK’s greatest national strengths. It is also an asset that we could exploit more effectively. Within the term “science superpower” lies not only a desire to create knowledge but an intent to mobilise it in the UK’s interest – either economically, technologically or militarily. But this necessarily requires policymakers to treat scientific knowledge, networks and institutions not just as public goods but as national capabilities in an increasingly competitive and threatening world. The question is how the UK can do this without undermining excellence elsewhere.

This paper seeks to answer this question by identifying four characteristics of science superpowers that should guide the UK’s ambitions. First, science superpowers prioritise academic foundations. That is to say, competitive R&D investment, well-regarded research institutions and strong intellectual property assets. Second, science superpowers have deep knowledge networks, in that they host the best research, attract the most promising scientists, and lead global regulation of technologies. The third trait of science superpowers is absorptive capacity: the ability to absorb ideas within the real economy for economic benefit. Fourth, science superpowers typically exert their scientific influence overseas through technology exports – the sale of high-tech products and services, including intangibles, overseas. So the UK has strong academic foundations and knowledge networks from which to supercharge its scientific ambitions. But if ministers are to be successful they will need to address other strategic weaknesses.

The first step is obviously closing the UK’s long-term R&D funding gap. But we should also be taking steps to strengthen absorptive capacity in the economy, boost specific high-tech exports and ensure that the UK benefits from postgraduate science training and UK-origin patents. In practice, this means reforming the UK science ecosystem to meet five key tests, which we explore in further detail later in this paper: Strategic direction. The Government should be more assertive in deploying R&D funding in areas of UK comparative advantage or to address a strategic weakness. The UK’s higher education system should do much more to encourage application of research, and businesses should respond by increasing their own R&D intensity, increasing demand for scientists within the domestic economy. Private investment in R&D should be encouraged by giving businesses simpler, long-term incentives providing a stable policy environment that allows companies to plan investments with certainty. The UK should do more to support businesses and individuals to adopt cutting edge technologies so we can fully realise the benefits of technology. UK firms could do much more to export their products overseas, particularly intangibles, and to set standards for future technologies to get ahead of these emerging markets. Now is the right time for policymakers to raise their ambitions for British science.

In the wake of the pandemic and invasion of Ukraine, when science policy is more salient than any time since the Cold War and national security is front of mind for voters, policymakers have a unique opportunity to assure the UK’s position as a science superpower for decades to come. We must take it.