How the UK can become a science and tech superpower
UK Government has expressed an ambition to make the UK a “science and tech superpower by 2030” – a long-standing an oft-repeated statement through Government strategies including the Integrated Review, the more recent Spring Statement, as well as cascades of speeches from ministers & Government Representatives alike. More recently, this has underpinned announcements around the new Department of Science, Innovation and Technology – the UK’s foundation from which “to deliver the UK’s most innovative economy in the world” – its complementary Science and Technology Framework, and individual technology strategies such as the National Quantum Strategy.
The rhetoric is set, but the ambition – what does it actually mean to be a science and technology superpower – will require addressing several multi-layered and long-standing challenges facing the UK’s society and economy, while concomitantly opening pathways within Government to support pioneering innovation. This will certainly require moving beyond the political fray; it will require recognising areas of particular strength in UK innovation, and crucially, applying that innovation to the UK economy.
How this significant ambition will be achieved by Government remains to be fully understood. Even with the Science and Technology Framework with the intent to set a clear roadmap, in a year before an election stifles what can be done to underscore certainty with long-standing investment into technology ecosystems. It poses whether the superpower rhetoric may be remembered as a missed opportunity - just as the “white heat” of technology fizzled sixty years earlier as government strained to deliver national renewal.
It should be recognised that the UK is certainly not starting from zero, already possessing one of the greatest technology and innovation heritages from Turing’s computer to DNA sequencing; more recently hosting a highly sophisticated AI innovation industry, ranking third globally and first in Europe. Whilst the roadmap to success remains undecided, there is a considerable opportunity for the UK tech sector to utilise this experience and expertise to supercharge the UK’s ambition towards the status as a global leader in technology and innovation. In turn, Government and the tech sector can work together to develop the right conditions for world leading research and development in the UK.
What does “superpower” mean?
The UK is facing an innovation challenge. As Professor Richard Jones, Vice President for Regional Innovation and Civic Engagement at the University of Manchester, emphasises in his report Innovation, research and the productivity crisis, the UK’s innovation challenge is partly a productivity challenge. The UK’s experience of a global slowdown in productivity is uniquely exacerbated by a persistent productivity gap spanning decades when compared with other countries on the technology frontier, particularly the USA and Germany. Professor Jones argues that the stagnation has been more pronounced in the UK than any other advanced economy except Italy and that it cannot be coincidental stagnation in productivity follows behind continued low investment in R&D since the 1980s.
The UK stands behind leading R&D nations such as Israel and South Korea who each spend over 4%, and countries like Austria, Japan, and Switzerland, who all spend over 3%. This means global competitors are investing more in innovation than the UK as proportion of their economies, putting the goal of making the UK a science and technology superpower at risk. Despite the ambition to reach the goal of 2.4%, the recent cuts to R&D do not indicate outwardly to private sector that the UK is a nation prioritising innovation. In this sense, the UK’s poor productivity performance and the low R&D intensity of its economy fit hand-in hand as part of the innovation challenge facing the UK. For further look into this, I recommend reading my colleague Bobby Brooks’ insight as part of this series on R&D.
Shape UK innovation
Together we are working with Government and other stakeholders to build an innovation ecosystem that will benefit people, society, economy and the planet - and supercharge the UK as a global leader in tech and innovation. You can find out more and get involved through our Innovation Hub
As part of the UK’s research and development ecosystem, it is often noted that the UK has fostered strong research, underscored by the strong international reputation of its academic institutions, with four out of the top 10 global universities, 4% of researchers, 7% of academic publications, and 14% of highly cited academic publications in the world despite having less than 1% of the world’s population. Whilst acknowledging the challenges facing academia, especially around funding and inclusive access, the UK nonetheless has strong academic foundations from which to pioneer innovation.
The innovation challenge, then, turns to applied innovation. How can we apply this research advantage into real world benefits – both for the UK economy, and for those living within it? This is an area where the UK has historically stifled itself.
Commercialisation and application of technology
The UK struggles to commercialise. As it stands, the technology sector accounts for less than 5 per cent of the UK’s total market capitalisation compared to comparable nations like Germany where it is 11 per cent. As the recent report from the Tony Blair Institute highlights, the challenge is not in the research or ideas, the UK has a strong emerging tech start-up scene and has more tech unicorns than Europe. The challenge is showing businesses that they can scale long term & internationally from the UK.
A direct example can be seen in the future of the UK’s Quantum ecosystem. The UK has a strong Quantum Ecosystem thanks to the establishment of a UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, a £1 billion partnership between academia, industry and policymakers. Centres of excellence were established at Universities around the UK that enabled research to flourish. The Announcement of the National Quantum Computing Centre was world leading, with other countries shaping their quantum programmes based on UK effort. With this programme, quantum spinouts exploded across the UK, in part due to early-stage Government intervention. However, this programme is set to end in 2024. And whilst there is certainty this will continue, other nations are now producing forward-thinking national strategies and permissive approaches to procurement. techUK has previously called for public procurement to be viewed as a catalyst for quantum commercialisation in the UK and encouraged the UK’s Quantum Strategy to explore the importance of procurement; techUK welcomed the publication of a National Quantum Strategy to build upon this early success. It is key that the UK does not get complacent in early success, and Government, industry and academia need to leverage the recommendations of the Quantum Strategy to turn the ambition of UK success into clear, long-term and commercially-driven action. This example indicates that collaboration between UK Government and the UK tech sector can drive innovation, but long-term consistent and forward-thinking support is needed to move innovation from research to application, and then to commercialisation.
I started the insight explaining that success must be measured against the ability to mitigate the challenges facing the UK’s society and economy, while concurrently supporting areas where the UK can flourish. This insight has barely scratched the surface on the challenges facing the UK’s innovation ecosystem: key areas such as supporting SMEs both within and outside the UK tech sector, who reportedly have the most to gain in terms of innovation from emerging technologies, and supporting academia and industry alike with the right computing infrastructure, are just some equally critical topics surrounding innovation.
However, it would be insufficient to finish this insight without underscoring the imbalance in the development, distribution and benefits of innovation. Income inequality in the UK is one of the highest compared to most developed countries; ONS data shows that households with the lowest incomes experienced a higher than average inflation rate amongst a cost of living crisis, and while the UK is facing a domestic STEM skills crisis, education inequality still means that fewer than 30% of children in the poorest households reach the attainable GCSE threshold. Whatever pathway towards success is forged, it is important to remember that it is impossible to become a science and technology superpower unless there is opportunity for all to contribute and benefit.
Furthermore, techUK’s new 'Supercharging UK Tech and Innovation' campaign hopes to address some of the key challenges discussed in this insight and develop thinking on how all those in the UK can thrive through technology and innovation. With over 950 members working across a diverse range of technologies, and with strong networks across public, private and third sectors, techUK is uniquely positioned to convene technology leaders and ensure the innovation ecosystem is fit for purpose in the UK. For more information or to get involved, please visit our Innovation Hub and complete the ‘contact us’ form.
techUK – Supercharging UK Tech and Innovation
The opportunities of innovation are endless. Automation, IoT, AI, Edge, Quantum, Drones and High Performance Computing all have the power to transform the UK. techUK members lead the development of these technologies. Together we are working with Government and other stakeholders to address tech innovation priorities and build an innovation ecosystem that will benefit people, society, economy and the planet - and supercharge the UK as a global leader in tech and innovation.
For more information, or to get in touch, please visit our Innovation Hub and click ‘contact us’.
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Matt is techUK’s Head of Nations and Regions.
Matt is leading techUK’s work with members and stakeholders across the UK to increase the Local Digital Capital across the UK’s nation and regions, build communities and to ensure that digital technology plays a key part the post-COVID-19 levelling-up recovery.
Prior to joining techUK, Matt worked for several national education charities and membership bodies to develop their regional partnerships with schools, academy trusts, local authorities, and other stakeholders. He’s also worked with local authority leaders and other stakeholders to engage communities, work with elected members and improve public services.
He holds a BA in Politics from the University of York and an MA in International Relations from the University of Leeds. Away from work he’s a keen football fan and golfer.
If you’d like to find out more about our work in the nations and regions please get in touch with Matt:
Laura is techUK’s Head of Programme for Technology and Innovation.
She supports the application and expansion of emerging technologies, including Quantum Computing, High-Performance Computing, AR/VR/XR and Edge technologies, across the UK. As part of this, she works alongside techUK members and UK Government to champion long-term and sustainable innovation policy that will ensure the UK is a pioneer in science and technology
Before joining techUK, Laura worked internationally as a conference researcher and producer covering enterprise adoption of emerging technologies. This included being part of the strategic team at London Tech Week.
Laura has a degree in History (BA Hons) from Durham University, focussing on regional social history. Outside of work she loves reading, travelling and supporting rugby team St. Helens, where she is from.