Ministers will fail to deliver on their promise to make the UK a “science and technology superpower” by 2030, according to a cross-party group of colleagues who called the government’s science policy “inconsistent and unclear”.
The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee said the commitment risks becoming “an empty slogan” without a “laser focus on implementation”.
Colleagues also expressed concern at the government’s failure to appoint a new science minister after George Freeman resigned on July 7 and vacated the position. A replacement is not expected to be appointed until the Conservative Party elects a new Prime Minister.
They called on Boris Johnson’s successor, to be announced early next month, to prioritize the appointment of a cabinet-level minister for science, research and innovation.
The peers concluded that the government’s international science policy “has been somewhat incoherent”, making the UK appear “unreliable and dismissive”. They added: “There is an urgent need to rebuild international relations.”
In a report titled Science and Technology Superpower: More than a Slogan? The politicians also said that the failure to link up with Horizon Europe “could further damage the UK’s reputation and jeopardize the quality of its science base”.
Membership in Horizon Europe, which previously promised British scientists important funding and research grants, was agreed in principle after Great Britain left the EU, but has now been postponed.
The UK is currently blocked from joining the £82billion research scheme because of the dispute over post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland.
Amid these delays, new programs and research grants in the UK have stalled.
Leading European scientists are no longer seeking jobs in UK laboratories, while the 44 UK scientists who have been awarded Horizon grants have been told they will no longer be funded unless they move to an EU country.
The committee’s chair and Crossbench colleague Baroness Brown of Cambridge said the government’s “science policy is far from perfect”.
“Internationally, the failure to join Horizon Europe and recent cuts in official development assistance have tarnished the UK’s reputation,” she said. “Britain cannot be a scientific superpower in isolation; Relationships need to be repaired.
“British science and technology remains strong and respected around the world, but it will not reach its full potential for the UK with inconsistent and unclear government science policies. A new government must maintain ambition for science and technology and develop a clear implementation plan.”
Speaking in a personal capacity during an online briefing on the report, Crossbench colleague Lord Krebs told the PA news agency: “People work in teams around the world and therefore cutting yourself off from the largest international collaborative program is a remarkably clumsy thing and it hangs with it Brexit together? Yes, it definitely is.”
He added: “There is a risk that instead of being a scientific superpower, Britain will become a bureaucratic superpower.”
The peer report confirmed that the government was “increasing public funding for UK research and innovation, government agencies and other research funders” and “established the National Science and Technology Council as a cabinet committee and created a new body, the Office, for science and research Technology strategy to prioritize science and technology”.
But it added: “Despite welcome steps and commendable rhetoric, we are concerned the Government is not on track to deliver on its ambitions. Evidence of sustained focus, implementation and delivery is lacking. In addition, it is not clear how the added value is created by the many layers of bureaucracy.”
The report also noted that the government “apparently lacks an overarching strategic development plan” for UK science and technology and has “failed to identify the areas of science and technology in which the country should specialize”.
Colleagues warned of the effects of inflation, which would undermine increases in public spending on research and development, adding: “History teaches us that research and development budgets are often cut in tough economic times. This must be avoided.
“A clear and consistent science and technology policy has the potential to unlock significant benefits for the UK and many of the pieces are in place to meet the government’s ambitions. But there must be a laser focus on implementation, otherwise science and technology superpower will become an empty slogan.”