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UK must ‘embrace technological change’, says Theresa May

As Brexit approaches, prime minister Theresa May says the country must work together to make Britain an “international centre for transformative technologies of the future”, and calls on industry to increase its R&D investment

Prime minister Theresa May has challenged industry to invest more in research and development (R&D) to ensure the country is at the forefront of new technological developments.

Speaking at the CBI Annual Conference in London on 6 November, May said the country must build an economy “fit for the future”, which will be driven by science and innovation.

As Britain prepares for Brexit, it is important to ensure it has the right deal with the European Union (EU), but also develop the country’s relationship with countries outside the EU, May said.

The government’s modern industrial strategy whitepaper, which is due out later this month, will set out the country’s ambition for the British economy post-Brexit, which will be a “more productive, dynamic, innovative world leading economy which embraces technological change and is globally focused,” the prime minister said. 

“The technologies which are emerging today will have a profound an impact on our economies and lives in the 2020s and 2030s, as the internet and smart technologies have over the past 20 years,” May said.

An economy fit for the future, she added, will be driven by innovation, and scientific and technological advancements have the potential to “transform and improve our lives”.

At the CBI conference in 2016, May announced that the government is investing an extra £2bn a year in R&D, and earlier this year, she said the CBI UK should commit to spending 3% of GDP on R&D to avoid being left behind post-Brexit. 

The prime minister said she wants Britain to be “an international centre for transformative technologies of the future”, and that the government is already playing its part by increasing public sector support for R&D to record levels.

“I want to put the challenge to industry across the UK to do the same, because the immense benefit that R&D can bring will only be delivered in partnership with business,” she said.

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May added that British businesses currently invest around £1.70 in R&D for every £1 of government support, but that counterparts in the US invest around £2.70, and in Germany they invest nearly £2.40.

“I want you to work with us to drive business investment, to help develop the next generation of technologies here in the UK so we can deliver more good jobs across the country and improve living standards for everyone,” May told the conference.

In October 2017, Wendy Hall and Jérôme Pesenti published their report on artificial intelligence (AI), entitled Growing the artificial intelligence industry in the UK, which said that the AI sector could squander a historic lead unless government, industry and academia come together to give it cohesive support.  

May said the report was right in its ambition, “arguing that we should seek to make the UK the best place in the world for AI businesses to develop, start, grow and thrive”, and added that AI and automation are some of the most important industries to invest in for the future.

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