22 February 2023

Britain is the stagnation nation – science and technology offers the way out

By Tom Westgarth

Science and technology policy is back on the menu for the Westminster village. A new Department for Science, Technology, and Innovation has just been set up. The Advanced Research and Invention Agency is hiring programme managers to deliver their work. The Chancellor is using ChatGPT to write the introduction to his speeches.

And rightly so. Science and technology have been the driving force of progress for much of our modern age. Our accomplishments allow us to live longer, healthier lives, to travel across the world and into space, and to generate food and energy at scale. 

The current revolution in AI, climate technology, and biotech may well dwarf the impact of the industrial revolution. The tech revolution is causing the world to change rapidly; Britain needs to lead or be left behind.

The current Research and Development (R&D) debate in government is far too narrow. The main difference between Labour and the Conservatives is an argument over the percentage of GDP that goes towards R&D. But what we really need is both sides to offer a coherent answer on how they will support the talent that develops and commercialises new technologies, develop a procurement system that enables government to digitise effectively, and formulate the Whitehall machinery that can make or break good R&D strategies.

A new paper published by Sir Tony Blair and Lord Hague, ‘A New National Purpose‘, is a bold call to action and offers such a plan. 

When it comes to reorganising government, we believe that prime ministerial authority should drive R&D policy. We propose a new Office for Science and Technology Policy that sits across Number 10 and the Cabinet Office. Just like the White House equivalent, external experts can be brought in more easily to help devise radical new policy and run the National Science and Technology Council process. In a world where Kate Bingham helped to save us from lockdowns, let us bring in more Kate Binghams.

The modern state also requires foundational AI-era infrastructure. Citizens should be able to ask gov.uk for quick help on filling in driving licence applications, dealing with tax affairs and augment many other life-essential but currently time-consuming tasks. Estonia’s Bürokratt offers an exemplary model for us to take inspiration from.

To bring public services into the 21st century, we should build: 

  • Government-led, general-purpose AI systems – enabled by the required supercomputing capabilities – that can augment the delivery of a swath of public services.
  • A tech-enabled national health infrastructure that brings interoperable data platforms into a world-leading system that can reduce ever-increasing costs by being more efficient. 
  • A secure, privacy-preserving digital ID for citizens that allows them to quickly interact with government services, while also providing the state with the ability to better target support. 
  • A shift in the Government’s approach to data, treating data as a competitive asset that can be used to drive down the cost of delivery and build valuable sets in areas such as biomedicine.

Such an ambitious effort also requires a bolder approach to procurement. Our proposal of an Advanced Procurement Agency with a specialised mandate to find opportunities for public-sector innovation, procure promising solutions, and manage their deployment and testing, will help to de-risk some of the high-risk, high-reward projects, such as carbon removal

Our report also considers:

  • Reforming technology transfer offices (TTOs) to encourage more university spinouts. 
  • Increasing public R&D investment to make the UK a leader among comparable nations within five years. 
  • Building stronger global partnerships including seeking to establish a new informal ‘T3’ coalition between the UK, EU and US to find areas of common ground on global technology standards, enable associate membership of EU research programmes including Horizon, Copernicus and Euratom, and taking leadership of multilateral research initiatives on AI. 

With science and technology as our new national purpose, we can innovate rather than stagnate in the face of increasing technological change. This purpose must rise above political differences to achieve a new cross-party consensus that can survive any change of government. 

Read the full paper on our website here.

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Tom Westgarth is Senior Policy Analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.