Will Tanner is Director of Onward and a former Deputy Head of Policy in Number 10 Downing Street.
Two questions above all others animate this Conservative leadership contest: how to revive Britain’s woeful rate of economic growth, and how to secure Britain’s interests in a global order that is decreasingly Western.
Not for nothing have the biggest fireworks between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak so far been around tax cuts and standing up to China.
But national prosperity and security depend on much more than headline rates of corporation tax and diplomatic assertiveness. Much more important is a country’s ability to operate at the scientific frontier, developing new technologies that can dominate future markets and applying existing innovation to improve national competitiveness.
Industrial revolution is what made Britain a superpower in the 19th Century and it is what will keep us there today.
Yet in the last few weeks, science, and innovation has proved the proverbial elephant in the husting. Party members have heard almost nothing from either candidate on how they will protect, or enhance, the UK’s scientific reputation or transform investment in R&D. This is despite the fact that Britain has been mostly neglecting its scientific capacity over the last three decades, while our competitors have been massively tooling up.
As Onward’s new paper Rocket Science shows, the UK used to be one of the most research-intensive economies in the world. Until the 1980s, we spent more on R&D than Japan and only slightly less than the United States, at around two per cent of GDP. Since then spending has flatlined, while countries like Israel and South Korea have more than doubled their innovation capacity to nearly five per cent of GDP.
The UK is the only major scientific economy that spent less, on average, on R&D during the 2010s than it did during the 1990s.
Thanks, in fairness, to Sunak’s decision to almost double government science spending to £22 billion by 2024, public investment in R&D is starting to recover to an internationally-respectable level.
But business investment still lags badly behind other countries, pulling down UK productivity and competitiveness. Just 55 per cent of UK R&D is funded by the private sector, compared to 64 per cent in the United States and 79 per cent in China and Japan.
A crucial but as yet unanswered question for the two contenders is: how will you change that?
One option is to encourage universities to focus less on early-stage discovery and more at the “near-market” industrial frontier.
Politicians regularly tout the fact that the UK has 18 universities in the global top 100 for academia, but perhaps more germane to growth is the fact that just five feature in the top 100 for innovation. The UK files fewer patents as a share of GDP than most of our competitors, and has seen the ratio of patents to R&D spend decline consistently for the last two decades.
This is partly because the UK’s research funding system tends to reward citations and academic impact rather than patents, and partly because universities are forced to cross-subsidise research through revenue from foreign students, which both undermines institutions’ ability to hire and retain top researchers and creates a strategic dependency on the very country we are competing against, given more than a third of non-EU students originate from China.
Another option would be to more actively use public R&D funding to leverage in private capital, for example by making grants conditional on business match-funding or by funding national labs in areas of strategic priority – from quantum computing to genomics – that can crowd in private capital alongside.
This is closer to how the UK operated before the 1980s, through initiatives like the Microelectronics Industry Support Programme and the National Research Development Corporation, which co-funded R&D with private businesses and retained patents publicly.
Most importantly, though, the two candidates need to offer a long-term and cast-iron commitment to improving the UK’s levels of scientific competitiveness and certainty. The UK has one of the most complex policy environments for science (with seven different types of R&D relief, for example) and one of the most unstable, with new reliefs and strategies announced almost annually over the last decade.
Compare this to Japan, which has maintained the same R&D tax credit since the 1980s, and the problem becomes clear.
The “Science Superpower” agenda should not be alien to either Sunak, a former technology investor who studied at Stanford Business School, or Truss, a maths graduate who has been a fierce advocate for UK tech and STEM in schools. But it has so far proved curiously absent from either of their pitches to lead the country.
That is a mistake if they are remotely serious about either improving Britain’s long-term growth rate or competing with new world powers such as China.
The post Will Tanner: Both candidates must vow to end Britain’s neglect of its scientific capacity appeared first on Conservative Home.