Written by 6:42 pm EU Investment

Rishi Sunak’s record investment in British science could be his real legacy

Both Boris Johnson and the current PM deserve praise for extra spending

January 11, 2023 6:42 pm(Updated 6:55 pm)

When the first ever satellite launch from British soil ended in failure this week, Science Minister George Freeman admitted he was “gutted”. The Virgin Orbit 747 had taken off successfully and fired the rocket off the coast of Cornwall, but a secondary engine “anomaly” meant the entire operation imploded.

Freeman came quickly under fire because just hours earlier he had proudly tweeted: “UK wins the Space Race for 1st space satellite launch from Europe”. Cue lots of snark about how an “anomaly” leading to disaster was the perfect metaphor for Brexit.

But although the abortive launch quickly brought those lofty ambitions back down to earth, Freeman’s resilience didn’t crash and burn at all. Citing JFK’s famous line that we do space projects “not because they are easy but because they are hard”, the minister was unabashed.

He was even more ebullient today as he made a big speech to the Onward think tank, setting out the Government’s “global science strategy”. Many scientists in the audience liked what they heard, as Freeman fleshed out a commitment in the Autumn Statement to invest £20bn a year in research and development by 2024/5.

Crucially, he addressed the big issue overshadowing British research right now, namely the departure of the UK from the EU’s hugely important Horizon programme of collaboration and funding. Freeman hinted that the Treasury would honour its commitment to ring-fence science spending even if Brussels continued to shut the UK out of the project.

There’s no question that even some Europhiles believe the EU has been playing politics over the issue, blocking UK associate membership of the scheme until the row over the Northern Ireland protocol has been resolved.

In what looks like a high stakes game of chicken, Freeman outlined a detailed alternative to the EU scheme with a hint that British patience was running out. “I think the EU will see we are committed to doing this. I think it’s more likely they’ll pick up the phone and say ‘come back in’.”

But Horizon aside, the minister’s vision for science and its role in powering our economy was impressive. He rightly pointed out that many new technologies in bioscience, hydrogen, nuclear fusion, agri-tech offer a powerful way to build sustainable growth beyond the “boom and bust” of our dependence on service industries.

“Levelling up” could become a reality too if the regional clusters of expertise – marine technology on the south coast, semi-conductors in South Wales, medical tech in Belfast, hydrogen in the north east, self-driving vehicles in the midlands – could be branded and promoted better for domestic and foreign investors.

Freeman highlighted pension fund reforms to better connect all these growing industries to the financial muscle of the City of London. He was very keen to stress global cooperation, but also that one benefit of Brexit would be to turn the UK into a “regulatory test bed” to make it easier for overseas firms to trial their technologies with less red tape.

The minister also confirmed recruitment to key posts to the new UK Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), which is focused on high-risk, high-reward transformative research. That agency, plus the billions pumped into science, will possibly be the most positive legacy of the Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings era.

Even the harshest critic can’t deny the Vaccines Taskforce and ministerial backing for AstraZeneca and Oxford University made a material difference to the fight against Covid. Chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance can bow out of his job with some pride this spring.

One of Liz Truss’s many errors was to scrap the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), a Cabinet committee established by Johnson in 2021 to better coordinate research funding. It has been restored by Sunak, who chairs it.

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And what was most striking was that this was one area where the Government has put its money where its mouth is. Declaring “you don’t get to do science on a shoestring”, Freeman said the Conservatives had already hit their 2019 manifesto commitment to spend 2.4 per cent of GDP on R&D and hinted new ONS figures showed it was close to three per cent.

In fact, the Tories have come a long way since the 1980s, when deep cuts to university research by Margaret Thatcher (herself a chemistry graduate) led to a serious backlash. “Save British Science” was backed by 100 fellows of the Royal Society and nearly 1,500 scientists.

But former Business Secretary Greg Clark’s industrial strategy, plus Johnson’s enthusiasm, meant they outflanked Labour on the issue at the 2019 election. The word ‘science’ appeared just once in Labour’s manifesto, but 21 times in the Conservatives’ prospectus. Johnson made a big speech about it, Jeremy Corbyn didn’t.

Keir Starmer has been keen to change all that and now regularly talks about the economic necessity of investment in science, robotics, AI. As a keen student of how Harold Wilson’s “white heat” of new technology speech heralded Labour’s return to government in the 1960s, it’s easy to see why.

The party that owns the future often owns a general election. But at least there is thankfully now a cross-party consensus that funding for science is vital in a post-Brexit Britain.

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