Robert Sutton: The Coronavirus. We must stop pinning our hopes on a vaccine – and learn to live with it

14 Sep

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

The phase three trial for one of the leading contenders for a Covid-19 vaccine has been paused. The collaboration between Oxford University and AstraZeneca has been put on hold after a patient became unwell.

The official line from the Government and developers has been that this is perfectly normal procedure – such setbacks are common in clinical trials, and we should not worry prematurely. Matt Hancock has described it as “not necessarily a setback,” while an AstraZeneca statement said it “is a routine action…In large trials, illnesses will happen by chance.”

This is true, and we do not have any reason to believe the incident is a significant issue for the trial. But it highlights a disturbing vulnerability in the Government’s current strategy.

That a pause has prompted so much speculation shows how heavily we have become invested in the idea that a vaccine will be the solution to the current pandemic.

The development of a number of promising candidates has been used to justify the economic and social disruption which has been imposed to counter the virus’ spread. That we will be promptly able to eradicate Covid-19 once we have a working vaccine is assumed by many, including those in Government steering the response, to be a given. Boris Johnson has said he expects a “significant return to normality” by Christmas.

While never explicitly stating it, this Government’s entire coronavirus response has been based on this assumption that the Coronavirus is a short-term problem to which a vaccine is the solution. Hancock reiterated only a few days ago that “the best way out of this coronavirus pandemic remains a vaccine.”

If it were to be condensed into one of the three-line stanzas which attempt to communicate to the public the ever-changing guidance, it might be: “Lock everything down; get everyone vaccinated; beat the coronavirus.”

But what happens if we are not able to achieve that second step?

The technical, social and political challenges in producing an effective vaccine over such a short timeframe are myriad. Even if the Oxford vaccine does prove to be safe and effective and enters mass production by early next year (which is a big if), getting the public to accept it widely will be a challenge at a time when faith in the Government’s handling of the response is low.

A programme to vaccinate the majority of citizens across the UK will be extraordinarily difficult. Achieving sufficiently high coverage to prevent further spread and to protect vulnerable individuals requires a high level of compliance. If too low a fraction of the population is vaccinated, it will have little effect in preventing further spread. But many younger citizens will not be interested, as the threat to them is so minimal. Others will be concerned about the possible side effects of a vaccine which has been rushed through production at breakneck speed.

Yet for vaccination to be successful in protecting vulnerable populations, these groups must be included. And with many on the Conservative backbenches already uncomfortable with the Government’s growing encroachment on civil liberties, it seems unlikely there will be sufficient political capital available to force citizens to comply.

Even if we manage to produce a safe and effective vaccine and achieve mass inoculation, return to life as normal will not be as simple as flicking a switch back on again. Disruption to industries and supply chains will take time to subside, and in some cases the damage will be permanent.

The Government should spend less time thinking about life after Covid-19 and more time planning how to safely life and work alongside it. The coronavirus is unlikely to be gone by Christmas, and in the meantime, we must consider if the self-inflicted damage caused by this government’s response could begin to outweigh the threat of the virus itself.

Morgan Schondelmeier: State-directed research is no substitute for the marketplace of ideas

14 Aug

Morgan Schondelmeier is Head of External Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.

While we find ourselves in “unprecedented times” it seems that the Government is increasingly dipping into precedent policies. From revamping Milliband’s 2015 food advertising ban to proposing spending that would make Corbyn blush, the Government seems dead set on recycling old ideas.

So why then, if they can’t even think of particularly new policies, are they proposing that Government bureaucrats dream up scientific advancements?

We saw in the spring budget the creation of a grand narrative, and £800 million, devoted to reinventing British science, technology and innovation through the creation of the British Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Just like the first ARPA was a response to the Soviet Union, this agency would be the answer to China’s state-sponsored technological progress, cementing Britain’s place on the global scientific stage.

But what is ARPA? In a new paper out this weekend by Professor Terence Kealey, the Adam Smith Institute looks at the history of the state directed research project from the USA and the hopes of its champions in the UK.

It’s yet another example of old ideas dying hard. ARPA, soon to have a British sibling after being strongly championed by Dominic Cummings, was plucked from a project established in the United States during the 1950s. In response to the Soviet’s launching Sputnik, Eisenhower established ARPA to fund pure scientific research – in the hope of creating the technology to beat the Soviet Union.

Eventually, ARPA was found to be inefficient and expensive and so funding was cut and their purpose was limited to purely defense-related applications. Symbolically, the organisation became DARPA, with the D standing for defence. Its proponents thought this change in the early 1970s would lead to the downfall of American science. But instead, as history showed us, private innovation flourished.

You may have heard the story about how the Internet and personal computer technology were funded by the US government. In reality, ARPA made only tangential contributions that largely came to fruition after the leading minds left the organisation as it became focused on defence applications. The ‘brain drain’ from state-funded ARPA to privately backed research ventures like Xerox PARC was the real impetus for the technological revolution. Xerox PARC are the ones who created windows, the mouse, the laser printer, and ethernet.

So what has led Cummings to emulate, to the letter, a less than stellar project from the US? Firstly, he conflates the success of ARPA with the success later found in Xerox PARC and Silicon Valley, and as having all been borne of state funding.

But secondly, and perhaps more saliently, this Government is making the same mistake socialists have made across history; thinking that the genesis of economic growth is central direction rather than bottom-up, market-led innovation. That without government direction, we won’t ever reach the next technological milestone.

And that is the grand misconception with research and development. The idea that the market and private enterprise is failing to devote resources to new and untested technologies, because the risk is too great. So the Government must step in to ensure that our answer to Silicon Valley is Tees Valley. But in reality, instead of bringing jobs and growth to our left-behind towns, it will be a boon to PhD students in established university and metropolitan areas to pursue their pet projects.

Our approach to technological research and development is fundamentally broken. We need to rework our attitudes towards innovation, not just our funds. The Government is seeking to give with one hand, while taking away with the other. It has throttled innovation and enterprise through its policies and throwing money at the problem, without fundamentally changing the environment in which it hopes to make innovation flourish, won’t actually bring jobs or growth or create new technologies.

For too long, our adherence to the European Union’s precautionary principle, whereby we regulate innovative technologies like GM crops, has strangled new developments. Our approach to patents is overzealous and makes it harder to stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us. High corporation taxes and the factory tax make it too expensive to conduct business in the UK, pushing our leading minds overseas.

All of these things can be fixed, and without spending a dime. Far too often governments, like this one, fail to acknowledge their role in hampering the progress which would otherwise be brought around in a free marketplace. Instead of recognising themselves as the problem, they are set on trying to be the solution.

So instead of spending £800 million trying to copy an idea the United States gave up on 40 years ago, the Government should take a critical look at the ways in which they can revamp our approach to innovation.

Were we to step back and look at what works around the world to increase innovation and scientific progress, we wouldn’t find ARPA, but a free and liberal marketplace for ideas which allows great minds to pursue the radical notion that our best inventions are yet to come.

Tris Dyson: Challenge prizes can incentivise British breakthroughs and new British industries

15 Jul

Tris Dyson is the Executive Director of Nesta Challenges. This is a sponsored post by Nesta Challenges.

“In the next 100 years, the most successful societies will be the most innovative societies”, so said the Prime Minister in his recent ‘Build, Build, Build’ speech. For those of us who work in the field of innovation and R&D, there was a lot to be cheerful about; the Government is making the largest commitment to science and technology investment for generations.

The UK is a global leader in innovation. We get many things right, but there are of course weaknesses in our system. While the billions more ear-marked for R&D will enhance our position and bolster our strengths in the sector, unless we become bolder in the funding choices we make, we will also amplify those things we currently get wrong. More money does not necessarily mean better results.

In his speech, the Prime Minister recommitted the Government to “creating a new science funding agency to back high risk, high reward projects”, preluding the creation of the much-anticipated agency modelled on ARPA – the US Advanced Research Project Agency. The Government’s R&D roadmap, published the following day, has kicked off a conversation about different and diversified funding approaches that will be needed for success, including challenge prizes and competitions.

Traditional approaches to R&D funding favour giving grants to well-established incumbents to deliver “safe” solutions against a pre-agreed process rather than being tied to finding ambitious solutions to problems we face. Too often “risk” is conflated with “recklessness”, less-impactful solutions that can be delivered to a pre-agreed budget by a well-known company win out over high-impact ideas that have a greater chance of failure.

Challenge prizes have a unique ability to unlock innovation and solve large problems. They reward solutions only after they are proven to work, de-risking investment in unknown entities and allowing new ideas, companies and innovators to break through.

A challenge prize is a simple idea – incentivise innovators to develop solutions with the promise of financial reward. Challenge prizes turn the R&D grant model on its head. Where grants offer a subsidy to the team that seems best placed to solve a problem in advance, challenge prizes offer a reward to whoever first or most effectively solves that problem.

This tweak – moving from an up-front subsidy to an incentive that pays out later based on success – makes a profound difference. Because challenge prizes do not rely on deciding up-front which proposal is best, judgement is reserved until there are real results, so they are far more open.

Open to different innovators: plucky upstarts who have the skills but not the track record or connected privilege. Open to different ideas: unusual approaches, new technologies or unconventional methods. Open to change: giving innovators space to rethink and restart, because all that matters is the end result.

From the industrial revolution through to the early 20th century, Britain was a leader in challenge prizes, from the original Longitude Prize to help seafarers navigate the oceans, to the Daily Mail’s aviation prizes. Then, post-war, their popularity diminished. In the last two decades however, they are experiencing a renaissance.

In the US, the $10m Ansari X Prize rewarded the first private company to build a reusable manned spacecraft. It generated an estimated $100m of investment from the 26 teams pursuing the prize in the nascent private spaceflight industry, catalysing a sector estimated to be worth $30bn by 2026. DARPA’s multimillion-dollar autonomous vehicle challenges have produced the technologies and companies that have made America the world leader in self-driving cars.

In the UK, Nesta Challenges’ £8m Longitude Prize launched to mark the 300th anniversary of its maritime predecessor, focused on developing rapid tests to ensure the preservation of antibiotics in the battle against antimicrobial resistance.

Teams of innovators are developing diagnostics that will revolutionise the treatment of bacterial infections in pursuit of the prize with many tantalisingly close to market. In the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the £5m Open Up Challenge promoted much-needed competition in the small business banking sector. The 12 finalists are now recognised as some of the most important and disruptive fintechs in the UK.

Though it garnered little attention, perhaps the most important thing said in the speech is, “we won’t get everything right, we certainly won’t get everything right first time”. Particularly in a political context, to change course, even if it achieves a better outcome, often appears far worse than sticking to the original plan.

“U-turn” is hurled as an insult; plan B is paraded as a sign of abject failure. And yet, any successful innovator will tell you that failure, pivoting and changing course is an essential part of the development of every successful idea.

If we are to become the global innovation powerhouse of the 21st Century, we will need to rethink our cultural attitude to failure and iteration. Challenge prizes allow us to do this, focusing the pay-off and reward on the outcome, not the means.

Rather than playing it safe, new institutions and mechanisms should be smart about risk and reward. That does not mean being reckless, but it should mean giving innovators licence to try more radical, less orthodox approaches, or to pivot and change direction. Courage from Government can generate courage in innovators.

The Government has huge ambitions for UK science and innovation. The financial commitment and the promise of investing in new approaches must be matched by policies that truly unleash the full potential of Britain’s innovators and opens R&D funding to as broad an audience as possible.

The lesson of the astonishing speed of innovation in the last few months, shows that with the right focus, the right goals, and the right incentives, we are a nation of innovators ready and able to move quickly to face the great challenges ahead.

Download The Great Innovation Challenge: How challenge prizes can kick-start the British economy from Nesta Challenges.

Alan Mak: Britain should champion a new Five Eyes critical minerals reserve system

30 Jun

Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founder of the APPG on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The on-going trade dispute between the US and China has put the spotlight on so-called “critical minerals”. We in Britain cannot afford to be passive observers. Instead, we should take an active interest in this key strategic and economic issue, and play a leading role in safeguarding access to critical minerals, both for ourselves and our Five Eyes allies. Ensuring our scientists, manufacturers and technology businesses have a secure and reliable supply of critical minerals is vital for Britain’s leadership of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Critical minerals consist of the 17 Rare Earth Elements (REE) recognised by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, with names such as promethium and scandium, plus other economically valuable but relatively rare minerals such as lithium and cobalt (used in batteries), tungsten (used in defence products including missiles), bauxite (the source of aluminium) and graphite (key to battery production).

The REEs have unique magnetic, heat-resistant, and phosphorescent properties that no other elements have, which means they are often non-substitutable. Whilst used only in small quantities, they are key components in a wide range of consumer products from mobile phones, laptops and TVs, and have widespread defence applications in jet engines, satellites, lasers and missiles.

Although they are more abundant than their name implies, REEs and critical minerals are difficult and costly to mine and process. Converting critical minerals embedded in rocks from under the Earth’s crust to separated elements is a complex and costly process which often involves the use of highly concentrated acids and radiation.

China hosts most of the world’s processing capacity and supplied 80 percentemploy of the REEs imported by the US from 2014 to 2017. On average, China has accounted for more than 90 pe cent of the global production and supply of rare earths during the past decade, according to the US Geological Survey.

By contrast, the US has only one rare earth mining facility, and currently ships its mined tonnage to China for processing. Lynas Corporation, based in Australia, is the world’s only significant rare earths producer outside China. Other critical minerals are similarly concentrated in a small number of producer nations. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was responsible for around 90 per cent of the world’s cobalt production in 2018, whilst Guinea dominates bauxite, with around 35 per cent of the world’s reserves.

As globalisation and industrialisation accelerate around the world, critical minerals have become a highly sought-after resource for the high-technology, low-carbon and defence industries. They will play a vital role in Britain’s future plans for economic growth, innovation and green industrialisation, especially as we renew and expand our manufacturing base in the wake of Coronavirus.

Given the national strategic and economic importance of critical minerals, the UK needs to act now and lead efforts to protect our national supply for the future. Neither we nor our Five Eyes allies can remain reliant on one producer for anything, including critical minerals. Here are four steps we should take:

Establish a New Five Eyes critical minerals reserve stockpile

The Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the USA and the UK has been in existence since 1941 and provides the perfect foundation on which we should develop a new critical minerals reserve that would end our collective vulnerability of supply.

The reserve would consist of inter-connected physical national stockpiles of critical minerals, and then extend to become a processing chain that all partners could draw on. The US already maintains stockpiles, and creating others including in Britain would lead to new jobs. The UK is never going to become resource independent, but through international co-operation we can diversify supply and refine, through innovation, the processing of these elements.

Use our international aid budget to secure critical minerals supplies

As the Foreign Office and DFID merge, the UK can align its development goals alongside diplomatic priorities. We should deploy our international aid to unleash the untapped supply of critical minerals in developing countries, effectively funding the start-up of new critical mineral mines and processing plants. This would enhance our supply of these elements and create jobs, transforming communities around the globe through trade, not just aid. China has already implemented a similar strategy in Africa, for example providing Guinea with a $20 billion loan to develop the country’s mining sector.

Create a new National Critical Minerals Council

The Government should establish a new National Council composed of metallurgists, scientists and foreign policy experts to monitor global trends in critical minerals, and advise the Government on rare earths and its strategic stockpile. Given the national security and defence procurement implications, the National Council’s establishment would help to keep this issue at the forefront of future policymaking.

Become the world’s greenest stockpiler by incentivising private sector involvement in critical minerals processing

The Government should provide funding for greater research into how we can improve the processing chain of critical minerals with a focus on how we can tighten environmental controls in this sector internationally.

The UK should establish itself as the world’s “greenest stockpiler” of critical minerals by offering incentives that encourage private sector investment in recycling processes and reward companies that contribute to the UK stockpile. We need more facilities like the University of Birmingham’s Recycling Plant at Tyseley Energy Park, which is pioneering new techniques that are transforming the recycling of critical minerals such as neodymium, which is commonly found in hard disk drives.

The Coronavirus pandemic has taught us the importance of supply chain security, whether for PPE or critical minerals. With our reputation for scientific excellence, global alliances and diplomatic networks, we can help ourselves and our allies strengthen our access to the key minerals that will power our economic growth and innovation potential for decades to come.

This is the first in a three-part series on how to boost our economy after Coronavirus.