Ministers will fall short of their pledge to make Britain a “science and technology superpower” by 2030, according to a cross-party group of peers, which described the government’s science policy as “inconsistent and unclear”.
The House of Lords’ science and technology committee said the commitment was in danger of becoming “an empty slogan” without a “laser focus on implementation”.
The peers also expressed concern over the government’s inability to appoint a new science minister after George Freeman resigned and left the post on 7 July. A replacement is not expected to be appointed until the Conservative Party elects a new prime minister.
They urged Boris Johnson’s successor, due to be announced early next month, to prioritize appointing a minister for science, research and innovation to a cabinet-level post.
The peers concluded that the government’s international science policy “has been somewhat disjointed”, making the UK “appear unreliable and unaccommodating”. 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 not joining Horizon Europe “risks further damaging the UK’s reputation and putting the quality of its science base at risk”.
Membership of Horizon Europe, which previously entitled UK researchers to important funding and research grants, was agreed in principle after the UK’s exit from the EU, but is now delayed.
The UK is currently blocked from joining the £82 billion research program because of the post-Brexit trade row in Northern Ireland.
Amid these delays, new programs and research grants in the UK have ground to a halt.
Leading European researchers are no longer applying for positions in UK laboratories, while the 44 British researchers who were awarded grants under Horizon have been told they will no longer be funded unless they move to an EU country.
The committee’s chair and peer, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, said the government’s “science policy has been far from perfect”.
“On the international stage, the lack of engagement with Horizon Europe, and recent cuts in ODA, have damaged the UK’s reputation,” she said. “Britain cannot be a scientific superpower in isolation; conditions must be repaired.
“Science and technology in the UK remains strong and respected around the world, but it will not deliver its full potential for the UK with an inconsistent and unclear science policy from the government. A new administration must retain its ambitions for science and technology and develop a clear plan for delivery.”
Lord Krebs, who spoke in person during an online briefing on the report, told the PA news agency: “People work in teams all over the globe, so cutting us off from the biggest international cooperation program is a remarkably inept thing to do. is it related to brexit? Yes, it definitely is.”
He added: “There is a danger that Britain could become a bureaucracy superpower rather than a science superpower.”
The Peers report acknowledged that the government “has increased public funding for UK research and innovation, government departments and other research funders” and “established the National Science and Technology Council as a cabinet committee, and it has created a new body, the Office for Science and Technology Strategy , to prioritize science and technology”.
But it added: “Despite welcome steps and laudable rhetoric, we are concerned that the government is not on course to meet its ambitions. Evidence of sustained focus, implementation and delivery is lacking. Furthermore, it is not clear how the value creation is delivered by the many layers of bureaucracy.”
The report also noted that the government “appears to lack an overarching plan for the strategic development” of British science and technology and had not “identified the areas of science and technology in which it wants the country to specialise”.
Peers warned of the effect of inflation in eroding the increase in public funding for research and development, adding: “History tells us that research and development budgets are often cut in times of economic hardship. 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 the science and technology superpower will become a void slogan.”