26 October 2022

‘Nerdy’ Sunak can make Britain a science superpower


There’s a fun theory that, since at least 1963, British Prime Ministers have alternated between being ‘nerds’ and ‘jocks’. The swift replacement of Liz Truss by Rishi Sunak has, apparently, broken the chain. 

In the days ahead, tough decisions will need to be taken on a range of policy areas, not least the economy and defence. But for those of us who care about science – that nerdiest of pursuits – what does Sunak’s rise to power mean for the agenda?

There are plenty of grounds for optimism. During the first leadership contest which the Tories treated us to this year, Sunak proclaimed his intention to ‘make Britain a science and technology superpower’. To achieve this he vowed to increase the amount of lab space available, ensure we have access to the best talent, and improve and speed up the research grant process.

While this is all very commendable, the detail behind these policies is somewhat lacking. (In Sunak’s defence, that’s understandable – given the lack of time for rigorous policy work to be done in the cut and thrust of a campaign). 

So, what could the new Prime Minister do to turn these laudable ideas into workable solutions?

On lab space, my colleague Aria Babu has written of just how undersupplied Britain is in this department. While London has 90,000sq ft of available lab space, and Manchester 360,000sq ft, this pales in comparison to the US – New York boasts 1,360,000sq ft, and Boston a staggering 14,600,000sq ft. 

One of the things the Truss Government was pushing through were a new wave of Investment Zones. Following the debacle of the mini budget, I suspect the tax break elements of these will now be watered down, or axed entirely. But retaining the plans to loosen planning rules within them wouldn’t be the worst idea. Without allowing more building to take place in and around our superstar cities – London, Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere – we limit the amount of research we can carry out, and raise the costs of that which we do manage to do.

On access to talent, positive steps have already been made. Introduced by Sunak himself when he was the Chancellor, the High Potential Individual (HPI) Visa created a route to the UK for many of the world’s most talented graduates. But, as my predecessor Sam Dumitriu has noted, the methodology for the HPI Visa is far from perfect, and actually freezes out a lot of graduates from STEM-focused universities. Expanding the criteria for eligibility would be a fillip for research-intensive startups and companies which rely on bringing in gifted people with globally scarce skill sets. It also goes without saying that as half of the UK’s fastest growing companies have at least one immigrant founder (a fact the new Prime Minister is well aware of), it would also be a boost to the wider economy at a time when we sorely need all the growth we can get.

On improving the research grant making process, this is also somewhere where one can see green shoots already emerging – with Sunak able to claim some of the credit. Right from the start of his Chancellorship, Sunak embraced the target to raise spending on R&D to 2.4%, in line with the OECD average. In his first Budget, he made money available to set up ARIA, one of the most exciting developments in science policy in recent years. (Earlier this year its chair, Matt Clifford, wrote insightfully for The Entrepreneurs Network on how the UK can become an innovation superpower.)  

But it’s not all rosy. Another of my colleagues, Anton Howes, recently dug down into worrying data that shows an increasing backlog in the R&D tax credits system. He estimates that the cost of delays in getting money to startups and SMEs – many of which will be working to address science and technology problems – at a staggering £132m. Getting on top of this will ensure innovative companies in the UK have access to the money they need to invest in cutting-edge research.

Taking stock, I think there are more reasons to be optimistic than pessimistic about the future of science and technology policy in Britain under Sunak. We shouldn’t get complacent though, or assume the right fixes will be easy to implement.

Planning reform is perennially challenging, while immigration is a vexed issue. In the current context of needing to shore up the public finances, there will no doubt be temptations to trim funding packages. Arguments in favour of pro-science policies, and the specific plans to deliver them, will need to be made carefully – and sympathetic to the most unruly Parliament in recent memory. 

New scientific discoveries will be essential if we are to innovate our way out of future problems. If Sunak really is our second nerdy Prime Minister in succession, let’s hope he embraces that fact, and puts science policy at the forefront of his programme for government. 

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Eamonn Ives is Head of Research at The Entrepreneurs Network.

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