The UK can play a leading global role in research and technology and at the same time remain closely involved in European programmes, science minister George Freeman said on Wednesday as he set out his vision of making Britain a “science superpower and innovation nation”.
The government is pushing ahead with preparations for what Freeman calls “Plan B”, an alternative to rejoining the EU research programmes from which the UK has been excluded for two years because of political disagreement over post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Freeman said Plan B would include initiatives to attract scientific talent from around the world to Britain and set up bilateral and multilateral collaborations.
But he added that the government was “continuing to push actively for association with Horizon Europe”, the €95bn EU research programme. He sounded more positive than in other recent speeches about the likelihood of Brussels letting the UK back into Horizon as well as Euratom (nuclear research) and Copernicus (earth observation).
“I want us to have our cake and eat it,” Freeman said, echoing a phrase originally used by former prime minister Boris Johnson. “I want to be in a very strong European collaborative ecosystem while making our science and research have more global impact.”
If the UK is seen to be building global partnerships, he added, “I think it is more likely that the EU will pick up the phone and ask us back in”.
The government has pledged to spend all of the £15bn over seven years that had been set aside for UK participation in Horizon on Plan B and other research programmes if the EU does not readmit Britain. But Freeman said details of how the money would be allocated — and how new international collaborations would be funded if it did rejoin Horizon — were still to be decided.
UK public spending on research and development is set to rise by 30 per cent over three years, reaching £20bn a year by 2024. The government in 2021 committed to raising total R&D expenditure to 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product from a level believed to be below 2 per cent.
However, the Office for National Statistics recently changed its methodology and said last October that it had significantly underestimated the country’s R&D performance. “Internal analysis of their most up-to-date figures suggests we were around 3 per cent in 2020,” Freeman said.
“The key to the next stage is using the additional public investment to unlock major industrial and private sector funding,” he added. “There is a wall of money out there wanting to invest in UK science and technology, but we need to make it easier for UK and international investors to invest in tangible ‘investable propositions’ — whether that be companies, funds, science parks, infrastructure or clusters.”
To facilitate this, Freeman has set up a unit in the business department focused on stimulating the growth of “innovation clusters” around the country. “I am working with [other government departments] on developing a much clearer road map to invest in UK research and development,” he said.