Budget 2020: Thanks for the cash, but there are bigger problems to solve first to boost UK tech

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s first Budget was a step towards making good on the new government’s promise to be “unashamedly” pro-technology.

Offering £22bn in annual funding for research and development (R&D) is a nice, big headline figure. The creation of a “UK ARPA” to stimulate “high-risk, high-reward research” has long been an aim of No.10 special advisor Dominic Cummings. And the previously announced £5bn for superfast broadband roll-out will go some way towards making the UK telecoms infrastructure fit for the next decade.

As several observers have pointed out, Sunak’s Budget was so left-wing in its approach to state funding, you could almost have expected him to offer free broadband. The commitments were broadly welcomed across the tech sector, tills no doubt ringing at the sight of all that R&D cash.

But all we have so far is money, and a lot more than that is needed to fulfil anyone’s vision of post-Brexit UK becoming a genuine global powerhouse in technology innovation.

That £22bn on R&D doesn’t spend itself. Innovation is a people-led activity, and if that cash is to be spent wisely, it needs the best talent – and plenty of it. The Budget also included £120m in capital investment to create eight new institutes of technology – again, previously announced – in the hope of accelerating home-grown teaching in science, technology, engineering and maths. But that won’t deliver trained people for some years.

It is inevitable, therefore, that if we’re to get value for the planned R&D investment, we will need to rely on immigration. As Computer Weekly has highlighted, there must be question marks over the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for overseas talent, with the impression given to the world of a country making it harder for foreigners to thrive.

The digital skills gap is the one problem that successive governments over three decades, for all their commitments to technology, have yet to solve. As trade body TechUK said in response to the Budget, this government may “recognise the challenge but perhaps not the scale” of this problem.

“The country will need a radical rethink on adult education and retraining if we are to fully benefit from the opportunities of the future,” said TechUK CEO Julian David.

The government also wants to improve data sharing across the public sector, to help improve services and make better policy decisions. Here too, the scale of the challenge is huge – perhaps a reason why, three years after the job was created, nobody has stepped up to fill the role of government chief data officer. Data is patchy, fragmented, unstandardised, difficult to locate and access, and until those data infrastructure issues are resolved, the opportunities will be heavily restricted.

So, on paper, it was a positive, pro-tech Budget. In practice, there remains a lot to do.

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