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Lords to scrutinise UK plans to become a science and tech ‘superpower’

House of Lords Science and Technology Committee inquiry will investigate the government’s strategy to advance its science and tech ambitions, how it will be delivered and its feasibility

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has launched an inquiry into the government’s plans to make the UK a “science and technology superpower” to ascertain whether it can deliver on this ambition.

The investigation to be carried out by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has been launched amid uncertainty around the feasibility of the plans. According to the call for evidence, it is unclear what is meant by a “science and tech superpower”, or how the overall strategy for science and technology will be coordinated, or how it will interact with the broader research and innovation ecosystem.

There are also questions around how the science and technology vision for the UK will be integrated with other areas of policy, economic and industrial strategy. In addition, the committee is not clear which sectors will be prioritised within that vision. While acknowledging the UK’s academic institutions are well-regarded, the committee also argues this is “only part of what is needed for a high-skills, high-tech economy”.

“The UK has many respected academic institutions, but this alone will not make the UK a ‘science superpower’. The government’s commitment to increase research and development funding is welcome, but it remains unclear how this will translate into achieving the four strategic priorities,” said Baroness Brown, chair of the Science and Technology Committee.

“In our inquiry, we will seek to understand what the government’s ambition for the UK to be a ‘science superpower’ means in practice. We’ll explore what a viable strategy for the UK’s science and technology sectors would look like, whether the right structures exist in government to deliver a strategy and what the UK can learn from other countries,” she added.

The inquiry comes in a context of government pledges to support the target of increasing public research and development funding from £9bn in 2017 to £22bn by 2026/7. To support this ambition, the government has also established the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), a cabinet chaired by the prime minister, with four priorities. The Office of Science and Technology Strategy, which is set to promote an overall strategy for scientific and technological development in Government policy, is also part of the plan.

As part of the investigation, the committee will be seeking evidence around what a “science and technology superpower” would look like, if the priorities identified by the NSTC are appropriate for the UK. Moreover, the committee will be looking to understand what can be done to ensure the current plan can be sustained and pursued when administrations change, and the consequences of ever-shifting science and technology policies.

The inquiry will also question whether the current policies and structures in place are sufficient to achieve the government’s goal to advance the science and tech sector.

As part of that area of inquiry, areas to be investigated include who should be accountable for that vision and what ministerial representation should science and technology have. Moreover, the Lords will be seeking views on how the NSTC and the OSTS should interact with existing bodies, such as the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Council and the Council for Science and Technology.

The inquiry will also question whether the introduction of a science and technology strategy challenges the Haldane principle and UKRI’s commitment to fund outstanding research, and if the UK is realising the potential of its research investment.

As part of that line of inquiry, the Lords will investigate areas such as whether bureaucracy is hampering research and innovation in the UK and how that can be addressed – for example, if and how the bureaucracy reducing principles of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) be extended to other public sector research establishments.

Other areas to be discussed as part of the inquiry include the contribution state, private and international funding should make towards the government’s ambition, and whether science and tech objectives could be better supported across government policy.

In addition, the Lords will be looking to understand how well the UK collaborates on research with international partners, and what can it learn from other markets worldwide.

The committee will receive written contributions from groups ranging from academia and industry to civil society until Friday 25 March 2022.

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