THE UK government has announced a raft of measures to ‘cement the UK’s place as a science and technology superpower’ including the launch of a new Science and Technology Framework backed by £370m (US$443.7m) in investments, and an extension to the Horizon Europe guarantee scheme to the end of June.
The Science and Technology Framework is the first major piece of work from the newly-created Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT). Described as a strategic vision to foster the right conditions for industry innovation and to promote world leading scientific research, the framework outlines how the government will take a robust and repeatable approach to identify the technologies that are most critical to the UK.
The framework says that after assessing over 50 technologies against eight criteria, the government has identified a portfolio of five critical technologies, which it wants to see flourish in the UK. These are artificial intelligence (AI), quantum technologies, engineering biology, semiconductors, and future telecommunications.
A number of strategies detailing how to maximise opportunities in these fields are expected to be published this year.
However, the delivery of this new framework will begin immediately, with an initial package of projects, worth around £500m in new and existing funding, the government said. These involve, a £250m investment to bolster AI, quantum technologies and engineering biology innovation; £117m of existing funding to create hundreds of new PhDs for AI researchers and £8m to find the next generation of AI leaders around the world to do their research in the UK; and £9m to support the establishment of a quantum computing research centre by PsiQuantum in Daresbury in the North-West.
It has also earmarked a £50m increase to improve World Class Labs funding, a £10m uplift to the UK Innovation and Science Seed Fund, and up to £50m to spur co-investment in science from the private sector and philanthropists to drive the discoveries of the future, subject to business cases.
“This is an ambitious plan, and we will use every lever in government to deliver it, working closely with industry and academia leaders from both Britain and the world,” said Michelle Donelan, the UK’s science secretary.
“We welcome the focus in the framework on both securing UK advantage in strategically important technologies and ensuring that these strengths translate into benefits that improve people’s lives,” said Sir Jim McDonald, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. “It is very positive to see the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology already contributing to a more joined-up, cross-government approach to advancing the pro-innovation policies that will be essential for the UK to thrive and to help tackle global challenges.”
Despite praise by many authoritative figures in industry for the new framework, it is clear that the UK’s membership to the EU’s Horizon programme is still an issue that the researcher community would like resolved.
Horizon is the EU's key funding programme for research and innovation with a budget of €95.5bn (US$101.7bn). The UK had negotiated access to a range of EU science and innovation programmes, including Horizon, after it left the EU in 2020. But the EU blocked Britain's participation because of disputes relating to trade across Northern Ireland’s border.
“Today’s announcement is welcome and one of the first steps to turning words into action must be securing full association to the EU funding programmes. That represents the base of a globally focused UK science sector,” Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society said.
Similarly, Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said: “Association to Horizon Europe will accelerate achievement of the ten priorities the government has set today. It does not preclude an ambitious global position for the UK in research and innovation, but in fact enhances and enables it.”
Now however, hopes of re-joining Horizon have been renewed after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak brokered a breakthrough deal with the EU over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol.
Although not related to science, under the deal, labelled the “Windsor Framework” the UK could link up with Horizon Europe, now that the deadlock over Northern Ireland has been diffused. “Yes, this Windsor Framework is good news for scientists and researchers, in the European Union and in the UK,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a joint press conference with Sunak in February.
Hopes have also been spurred on by the government’s announcement of a further extension until 30 June 2023 of the financial guarantee provided to the UK’s Horizon Europe applicants. Issued on the same day it introduced the Science and Technology Framework, ministers said that the extension will ensure that eligible, successful UK applicants will continue to be guaranteed funding, “supporting them to continue their important work in research and innovation.”
While the government touched upon its commitment to work swiftly and constructively together with the EU on a range of issues, including UK association to Horizon, it fell short on making any proposals to address the financial terms of the country’s membership to the programme.
Main said: “The extension of the funding underwrite announced today is a welcome intervention, but it is yet another sticking plaster, when the ultimate goal needs to be speedy association now that the barriers to this have been removed by the EU. We need to see a firm commitment from the prime minister to delivering full association.”
Last month, researchers questioned the government's commitment of bolstering innovation after it was revealed that the Treasury had taken back £1.6bn earmarked for research funding.
This was brushed off by a government spokesperson who advised that the returned monies is the difference between funding provisionally allocated for association with Horizon Europe (£2.35bn) and money that will be invested via UK Research and Innovation’s Horizon Europe guarantee scheme, and nearly £500m that the UK committed to R&D last year to cover the EU shortfall.
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