PM and Vallance to take lead in setting UK R&D priorities

Boris Johnson will chair a new R&D council, with Sir Patrick Vallance to take on leadership of a new Office for Science and Technology in the cabinet office

The prime minister has announced a range of new research and development initiatives that will “restore Britain’s place as a scientific superpower”.

Writing in The Telegraph this morning, Boris Johnson opined: “We have spent too long in a state of semi-detachment from science, as though it was something intimidating and remote from our lives. Too many people in our country lack training in science and technology, too many children think STEM subjects are not for them.

“Most glaringly of all, this country has failed for decades to invest enough in scientific research, and that strategic error has been compounded by the decisions of the UK private sector.”

The prime minister announced his intention to chair a new National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) and ask the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, to head up a new Office for Science and Technology Strategy (OSTS) in the Cabinet Office. Sir Patrick will add the new role of national technology adviser to his current position as the chief scientific adviser and head of the Office for Science.

The NSTC will “provide strategic direction on the use of science and technology as the tools to tackle great societal challenges, level up across the country and boost prosperity around the world”, Mr Johnson wrote.

Sir Patrick’s OSTS would begin its work by reviewing “the technology bets the UK should back and prioritise for strategic advantage”. The office would also “signal the challenges—perhaps even to specify the breakthroughs required”, the government statement delineated.

Referring to his new national technology adviser, Johnson said his hope was that “together we can give the scientific world – in academia and across commercial laboratories – a sense of where we think we need to go”.

What we are offering now is record funding combined with the strongest possible political support and backing for science and a clear indication of where the government sees greatest need
– Boris Johnson

The statement offered no detail on how the NSTC and OSTS would work alongside the Advance Research and Innovation Agency (ARIA), the legislation for which is currently proceeding through the House of Commons. The expressed purpose of these three bodies would appear to overlap, as they seek to identify and back blue-sky research that could lend the UK a strategic, long-term advantage.

His op-ed did provide one hint, however: while ARIA would “intensify the search for the unknown unknowns”, Johnson explained there are “known unknowns”, which government could take an active role in tackling. These statements suggest the agency and council will seek to focus on short- to medium-term developments in the health and environmental space.

By his admission, Johnson hopes his plans will enable Britain to emulate the success of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine and the NHS vaccination programme. The published plans suggest he sees an organisation formed in his image at the “centre of government” as the route to guiding this ambition. The UK academic base, “culture of innovation”, NHS data resources and capital markets gave it a competitive advantage, Johnson explained. “What we are offering now is record funding combined with the strongest possible political support and backing for science and a clear indication of where the government sees greatest need.”

Sir Patrick said: “The new Office for Science and Technology Strategy will put science and technology right at the heart of policy-making and strengthen the way we work across government to reinforce the position of the UK as a science superpower. I look forward to working with the National Science and Technology Council to help identify cutting-edge research and technologies that will deliver strategic advantage for the UK.”

In a select committee appearance earlier this year, the prime minister’s former advisor claimed that R&D policy would benefit from fewer fiscal constraints and less Treasury oversight.

For ARIA to improve UK science, Mr Cummings told MPs: “You need to strip out all the horrific Whitehall bureaucracy around procurement, state aid, human resources, civil service pay scales, all of these sorts of things. And huge tender processes from the Treasury as well.”

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