Research, Development and Innovation Organisational Landscape Report

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Monday 20th November 2023

(7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Viscount Camrose Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (Viscount Camrose) (Con)
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The Government’s response to the landscape review is in its final stages of preparation and will be published imminently. The response will outline the ambitious actions that we have taken since the review’s publication, including through the Science and Technology Framework and the creation of DSIT. It will also announce further commitments to create a research, development and innovation landscape that makes the most of our strategic advantages and builds a more diverse, resilient and investable landscape.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords—

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Portrait Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for that reply, but he will know that the review identified significant problems in the UK’s RDI landscape, some of which are long-term and serious, and are preventing us from becoming a science superpower. So can he assure us that the Government will take on board the integrated set of recommendations proposed in the review and establish an authoritative working group to implement them, rather than adopting a piecemeal approach to what it is a very serious challenge?

Viscount Camrose Portrait Viscount Camrose (Con)
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Indeed it is a serious challenge. The review identified, I think, 29 separate recommendations. The approach that the Government are taking is to address them not merely singly but, as the noble Baroness suggests, collectively, as a whole, as well. In fact, since its creation, two of our major steps build on the foundations laid by the Nurse review: that is, the creation of DSIT itself and the laying down of the Science and Technology Framework, which builds on the review, to set up the approach along many of the lines that the review suggested.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for intervening too soon. The Nurse review points out that government investment in R&D in the UK, at 0.12% of GDP, is five times lower than the OECD average. The UK ranks 27th out of 36 OECD countries. Where does the Minister think we should rank if we are to unlock the UK’s full potential in science?

Viscount Camrose Portrait Viscount Camrose (Con)
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I am not entirely sure where those figures come from. The R&D intensity of the UK—that is to say, the amount spent on R&D as a percentage of GDP—is between 2.8% and 2.9%. That places us fourth in the G7 behind Japan, Germany and the US, and behind Israel and Korea, so it certainly can be higher. That is why we have committed to spending £20 billion per year by the 2024-25 spending review.

Science and Technology Superpower (Science and Technology Committee Report)

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Wednesday 7th June 2023

(1 year ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register and join others in thanking our excellent chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, and the clerk and policy analyst who helped us produce this report.

Some of our witnesses told us that we are already a science superpower, while others said it was a meaningless slogan or possibly, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said, unhelpful boasting. My conclusion is that the slogan is largely hot air. Why do I say that? It is because the Government have not learned the lessons of history. The first person to try to quantify the UK’s position in the world of science was the late Lord May of Oxford when he was the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser. He quantified the performance of the UK relative to other countries in terms of major prizes such as the Nobel, Crafoord, and Balzan, and, in terms of bibliometrics, the numbers of papers published and citations. The UK was second only to the United States in scientific output and productivity. With 2% of the world’s scientists, we published 10% of the world’s papers and 13% of the most highly cited papers. If you look at input as well as output, the UK was well ahead of all other large countries in terms of bangs per buck.

Those are facts that Lord May of Oxford established —but the question is: why were we so successful? It cannot be that we are somehow inherently superior or innately better at science than anybody else. I shall mention three factors. The first is long-termism. In scientific research, major discoveries or breakthroughs usually follow many years of dedicated pursuit and many blind alleys. Nobel Prize winner, Max Perutz, referred to the long, lean years in his 22-year quest to determine the structure of haemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen to every cell in our bodies. Furthermore, the lag between discovery and application is generally measured in decades rather than years. Katalin Kariko, the Hungarian-American scientist whose research led to the development of RNA vaccines against Covid, such as Pfizer and Moderna, made her key discoveries in the late 1980s and early 1990s with no application on the horizon.

The second ingredient in the recipe for success is openness, which many other noble Lords have mentioned. Of the 72 Nobel Prizes in all fields awarded to UK scientists in the past 50 years, 20 were awarded to people born overseas who moved to the UK to do research. We have benefited hugely from welcoming overseas scientists.

The third ingredient in the recipe for success is freedom of inquiry. Were Watson and Crick on a mission to solve a practical problem? No. They were driven by an impulse to unlock the secrets of nature. As a result, they made one of the most profound discoveries of all time in the life sciences, which has transformed medicine. In fact, you could argue that, if you know how the results of your work are going to be applied, it cannot be very interesting or novel work in the first place.

In the Government’s quest to become or remain a scientific superpower, have they learned the lessons of history? Our evidence suggested not. Here is what we heard. First, in recent years the Government have published no fewer than eight different strategies for science with 25 priority areas: there is no long termism here. Secondly, the Government have slammed the door on many scientists from overseas by bureaucratic and financial hurdles and as a result of Brexit. Thirdly, the pipeline of young scientific talent is being strangled by a combination of precarity and bureaucratic overload in UKRI for early career researchers and further back in the pipeline by the persistent shortage of science teachers in state schools. Becoming a science superpower is not a sprint—it is a marathon, and the Government have tied their shoelaces together at the start of the race. I hope that the Minister will answer my questions about the lessons of history and say whether he agrees with them.