Lord Mair debates involving the Department for Science, Innovation & Technology during the 2019 Parliament

Science and Technology Superpower (Science and Technology Committee Report)

Lord Mair Excerpts
Wednesday 7th June 2023

(11 months, 2 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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My Lords, I declare my interests in the register and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, and her committee on producing this important and comprehensive report. It rightly emphasises the need for government to have a clear and consistent science and technology policy, with a laser focus on implementation to prevent “science and tech superpower” simply being an empty slogan.

I will make just two points. The first relates to the vital role of industry engagement, and the second concerns the crucial importance of association with Horizon Europe. On the role of industry, the Government’s R&D spend of 2.4% of GDP requires significant private sector investment, which is expected to be around twice the public sector spending. The apparent increase to 2.4% is, of course, welcome, but it represents a significant increase in industry funding. As the Select Committee report notes,

“industry does not yet feel engaged with the strategy process”

of the Government.

A vital ingredient of the pathway to the UK becoming a science and tech superpower will be effective translation of research for application and exploitation by industry. The recent Nurse review, published in March, addressed the importance of translational research organisations, rightly emphasising the need to bridge

“the gap between discovery research and the translation of that research into real-world uses”.

The review highlights the important role of catapults in achieving this. They are independent, not-for-profit technology and innovation centres first established by the Government in 2011. They are intended to foster collaboration between research organisations in the public and private sectors, and their main purpose is to assist industry with turning innovative research ideas into commercial products via connections and networks. The Royal Academy of Engineering emphasises the importance of connections and networks, as exemplified by catapults, in its recent position paper, Strategic Advantage through Science and Technology: the Engineering View, which was published in April.

This House’s Science and Technology Select Committee considered catapults in detail in its report, Catapults: Bridging the Gap Between Research and Industry, published in February 2021. I was privileged to have been a member of that committee under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Patel. We made a number of recommendations regarding catapults, and our report was debated in the House last year.

In particular, we highlighted the crucial question of the future role and long-term continuity of the catapults. We recommended that the Government prioritise scaling up the Catapult Network, promoting it as the UK’s national innovation asset. In the light of the ambition for the UK to become a science and technology superpower, can the Minister provide an update on the Government’s strategy regarding catapults and their role in promoting substantially greater industry R&D investment?

My second and final point relates to Horizon Europe. The noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, referred to this critical post-Brexit issue in her excellent introductory speech, as did other noble Lords speaking in this debate. The Select Committee rightly highlights the damage already caused to the UK’s reputation and scientific capability by the ongoing lack of association with Horizon Europe. UK universities have built high-impact science, technology and innovation networks over many decades of collaboration within EU framework programmes. These are now in jeopardy.

The UK must be seen by all international research communities as a reliable partner, and the Government must recognise that their plan B in the event of non-association with Horizon Europe is in danger of being a poor second best. The Nurse review concludes that it is essential that the UK associate with Horizon Europe. If it does not do so, the UK is in real danger of losing its prestigious position in the global R&D hierarchy, becoming less attractive as a research partner and for foreign investment and less likely to become a science and technology superpower.