The challenge for DSIT: don't become the department of 'Yes, but...'
Any (very) longstanding Computer Weekly readers may be able to cast their minds back to a time when this blog would make a regular call for the UK government to give technology policy a fully-fledged seat around the Cabinet table. More recent readers will be sceptical and note they had never seen such an article.
Well, after we pretty much gave up trying – and we’re talking maybe 10 years ago here – finally, at last, in a final act climax, the government has created such a seat, thanks to Rishi Sunak’s new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT).
Now, we shouldn’t be churlish (although, yes, we’re going to be a bit churlish…) because this move is undoubtedly A Good Thing. The digital, data and technology sector has become one of the most critical parts of the economy, and will only become more so. It is absolutely right that science and tech should have a significant focus in the machinery of government – not least if Prime Minister Sunak is serious about his aim to make the UK a “science and technology superpower”.
So the initial reaction to the launch of DSIT is very much: “Yes!” The challenge DSIT faces, however, is to not become the department of “Yes, but…” – simply waving a flag for science and tech despite obvious and growing concerns about the UK’s digital economy.
Sunak highlighted six “priority outcomes” for DSIT, covering R&D investment levels; making the UK the best place to start and run a tech business; public sector innovation; better international collaboration; regulatory reform, such as data protection; and passing the controversial Online Safety Bill.
Nobody would disagree that these should be priorities. But they have been priorities for some time and, well, the UK has done, mostly, OK at them. Six out of 10, perhaps.
Only recently, Tech Nation – which did so much to support and develop the tech startup scene across the UK – has been forced to fold after losing government funding; R&D tax credits are being reined back; financial support for small business buying tech is ending; the progress of digital government has slowed; the UK has dropped out of the EU’s Horizon science funding programme since Brexit; there’s a huge tech skills shortage, also exacerbated by Brexit; we’re lagging behind on semiconductors, fibre broadband and 5G. And so on. It’s a long, and by no means definitive, list of concerns that this government needs to address.
So, yes, let’s welcome the creation of DSIT, and join the tech community in wishing it well in delivering on its aims. But let’s also call on DSIT to quickly show us all, in a real and practical way, how and why it is going to make a positive difference.