Britain's days as a science superpower are behind it

UK needs a concerted industrial strategy akin to that of the US

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Part of the great British shtick is that we’re a ‘science superpower’. It’s a phrase trotted out constantly by Rishi Sunak, for one.

It’s true that from an early age Britons are taught about the inventors and pioneers of the past. Even the internet is ours, created by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Indeed, one of the biggest roars of the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic Games was when Berners-Lee made a rare appearance.

So, it’s sad and frustrating to report then that it would seem the best days, those that nurtured the most brilliant achievements, lie behind us.

A report this week from the Society of Chemical Industry, Manifesto for an Industrial Science and Innovation Strategy, paints a sorry picture of the UK’s current standing. The society, that represents academics and industrialists in chemicals – a sector, lest we forget, once championed by the mighty world-leading Imperial Chemicals Industries or ICI – says that far from forging ahead we’re lagging all our international peers.

The report states that however it’s calculated, whichever metrics is used, whether competitiveness, exports or government spending on R&D, we’re behind. Trailing the manifesto, Sharon Todd, the society’s chief executive, told The Times: “The UK is no longer a competitive or compelling place for industry to be located. We have a core asset base in science. We need to make the case and make it very strongly because things are going to get worse, and dramatically worse.

“Big investments come around in ten-year cycles for big plants and big facilities. We are close to hitting some pinch points. Chief executives are being approached to invest elsewhere. It is not appreciated that we are in danger of dropping off a cliff.”

Mr Sunak is merely copying his predecessor, Boris Johnson. Boosterism appealed to Mr Johnson, so in the same way we were told our armed forces are the best in the world (not true) or we’re taking back control (palpably false) or the NHS is admired everywhere (they don’t experience the crowded A&E departments and waiting lists) or our parliamentary democracy is regarded internationally (this, from someone who undermined Parliament) or our courts are universally celebrated (but the delays caused by lack of resources is not mentioned) so is the UK’s hegemony in science and R&D on the list.

It was once real but today is a fantasy, as the normally-not-so-outspoken society, lays bare. Britain is down from fifth to 30th in industrial competitiveness; pharmaceutical products have gone from 11 per cent to 3 per cent of exports; the UK is 27th in the world for government support for R&D; the average government spend on R&D among the 38 member countries of the OECD is 0.6 per cent of GDP, Britain’s is 0.4 per cent.

The manifesto says, “We are losing the race”, the UK is “drastically trailing other countries” and there is “no urgency” to turn that around.

What we lack, maintains the society, is a concerted industrial strategy, akin to that of the US. There, President Biden’s joined-up policies push in one direction, towards promoting US innovation and investment.

A start, says the manifesto, would be to reach that average OECD figure, for the government to commit, and be seen to be doing so, to spending a greater amount on R&D and raising the proportion of GDP from 0.4 to 0.6. That would send a positive signal that Mr Sunak’s administration is doing more than mere talking and is reinforcing its gushing with hard cash.

An Innovation Industrialisation Council would be formed, with the backing of legislation in an Innovation Implementation Act. The aim would be to encourage scientific breakthroughs, but then ensure they remain in the UK, that everything required to provide those discoveries with a strong commercial base is thrown at them – so there is no temptation to go elsewhere and jobs are created in the UK.

Mention of anything called a “council” in relation to industrial policy provokes a yawn. We have been down this route many times in the past and it’s got the UK nowhere. Indeed, we’re there at present, with an astonishing 70 or so trade, research and industrial councils in existence across the various sectors and specialisations.

Where the society’s proposal is different, they argue, is that theirs would replace many of those and act as an overarching body. Crucially, it would be run by people drawn from business, not politicians. It would be seeking “longevity, cohesion and consistency” supplying “a roadmap and a framework rather than just an ambition”.

Part of the society’s motivation is what it rightly perceives as the chasm between Westminster, Whitehall and business. Nobody is speaking up for enterprise within government, members of the ministerial team lack heavyweight commercial experience and with the recent problems that have beset the CBI, commerce and with it, science and R&D, lack high-level advocacy.

For years there has been a breakdown in relations between the business and political classes.

“There has been a loss of contact, confidence and trust. It is a consistent theme among our members that the UK environment is neither welcoming nor business friendly. The potential loss to the UK is £230 billion [of economic growth] and 240,000 jobs that would otherwise be created across the life sciences and cleantech sectors,” says Ms Todd.

The difficulty in what her society is suggesting is persuading Mr Sunak and his colleagues to make a mental shift. It is hard to imagine them being willing to relinquish control to business. For years there has been a breakdown in relations between the business and political classes. The latter – especially the Tories who see themselves as belonging to “the party of business” – make all the right noises, but equally, their distrust surfaces. Corporates pleaded for the UK not to leave the EU; their appeals were ignored. Mr Johnson at one point even uttered a profanity in relation to big business, showing what he thought of them.

Business is suspected of pursuing a hidden agenda. So taxation, the environment, health and safety – these are just some of the areas where ministers tread warily. Yes, they’d like to lower them and, in some cases, abolish them completely, but they also have another audience to serve, namely consumers and the public. They need funds and that means imposing taxes; likewise, they must be mindful of people’s health and safety, so that means regulation.

Ultimately, though, politicians like to remain in charge. Policy is their domain and that includes industrial policy. It is not something to be handed over to others.

This initiative deserves to be considered seriously. Certainly, consolidating the myriad councils makes sense. To go further, however, and see Britain’s innovation and industrial investment managed by non-politicians may prove to be a step too far, as much as it ought to happen.

Published: August 15, 2023, 11:43 AM