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Boris Johnson unveils plans for National Science and Technology Council

Prime minister Boris Johnson has announced plans to set up a National Science and Technology Council, which will help the UK realise and maximise the opportunities of scientific and technological breakthroughs

Prime minister Boris Johnson will establish a new ministerial council to provide strategic direction on how science and technology can be used to tackle some of the world’s biggest societal challenges and help to “level up” the UK.

The National Science and Technology Council, which Johnson will also chair, will be supported by a new Office for Science and Technology Strategy based in the Cabinet Office.

The Office for Science and Technology Strategy will be headed up by chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, who will also take up the role of national technology adviser alongside his current roles.

It is hoped the new council and supporting office will strengthen the UK government’s insight into cutting-edge research and technologies, as well as work across government to put science and technology at the centre of policy and public services.

The Office for Science and Technology Strategy will also identify what is needed to secure and to protect the science and technology capabilities required to deliver the government’s ambitions.

“The Office for Science and Technology Strategy will put science and technology right at the heart of policy-making and strengthen the way we work across government to reinforce the position of the UK as a science superpower,” said Vallance.

“I look forward to working with the National Science and Technology Council to help identify cutting-edge research and technologies that will deliver strategic advantage for the UK.”

Citing the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine roll-out, Johnson is also pushing for the whole of government to replicate this success in other areas, including in developing technology to reach net zero, curing cancer and keeping citizens safe at home and abroad.

“From discovery to delivery, our vaccination programme has proven what the UK can achieve at scale and at speed,” said Johnson. “With the right direction, pace and backing, we can breathe life into many more scientific and technological breakthroughs that transform the lives of people across the UK and the world.

“That’s why I’m establishing a new ministerial council and office at the centre of government, so we can realise the limitless possibilities that research and technology has to offer and cement the UK’s place as a global science superpower.”

In February 2021, the government announced plans to launch the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA), a research body aimed around identifying and funding groundbreaking science and technology at speed.

With a model based on the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and its successor DARPA, the new agency is supported by £800m in funding and will be backing high-risk research that offers the chance of high rewards in terms of their transformational impact on society.

Writing in the Telegraph, Johnson added the UK has failed for decades to invest enough in scientific research, a “strategic error” compounded by the decisions of the private sector.

“It is a wretched fact that British firms are currently investing a fraction of the OECD average on research; and though the speed of the discovery of Oxford AstraZeneca was little short of miraculous, it was also something of a miracle that it took place here at all. Before Covid, the UK domestic vaccine industry had almost perished out of benign neglect,” he wrote.

“So this is the moment to learn this stark lesson of the pandemic – our daily dependence on high-quality scientific research. It is also the moment to abandon any notion that government can be strategically indifferent, or treat research as a matter of abstract academic speculation.

“We are investing unprecedented sums, increasing government spending to £22bn for scientific research of all kinds; and we need to use those billions of state spending to leverage in the many more billions of the markets.”

In October 2020, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) launched its own science and technology strategy, which set out five capability challenges where emerging technologies can give the UK a “decisive edge” in the future.

The capabilities include securing and sustaining “advantage in the sub-threshold to improve the UK’s ability to compete against adversaries below the threshold of conventional conflict and address our vulnerabilities”, and developing highly capable systems “to target adversaries in new ways across all domains, develop novel means of delivery of hard power, and effective protection against highly capable adversaries”

Commenting on the announcement that the government will establish a National Science and Technology Council, Labour shadow science minister Chi Onwurah said: “Ministers have cut the budget for science this year, leaving researchers and programmes in the lurch, and medical research charities have been left to fend for themselves during the pandemic.

“More government structures cannot disguise the fact the government has no long-term plan for UK science and is letting our country’s researchers down.

“Boris Johnson blowing his own trumpet won’t protect the UK’s status as a science superpower – only a proper plan backed with long-term investment can do that.”

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