Government Announces new Science and Innovation Strategy

The Government has today formally launched its new science and innovation strategy, pledging almost £6 billion of investment and laying out its ambition to make “the UK the best place in the world for science and business”. Our plan for growth: science and innovation expresses the Government’s commitment to placing science and innovation at the heart of their long term economic plan, highlighting it as one of Britain’s clear global comparative advantages.

The strategy, which covers the period up to 2021, has six elements: deciding priorities, nurturing scientific talent, investing in our scientific architecture, supporting research, catalysing innovation, and participating in global science and innovation. Underpinning these six elements are five cross-cutting themes: excellence, agility, collaboration, the importance of place, and openness.

Two headlines from the strategy immediately catch the eye. First, under the “investing in our scientific architecture” strand, the strategy announces £5.9 billion of capital spending over the period from 2016 to 2021, what the report calls “the longest commitment to science capital in decades”. £2.9 billion will be directed towards the loosely defined “scientific grand challenges”, including confirmed investments in the new Polar Research Ship and Square Kilometre Array, and other previously announced initiatives including the Sir Henry Royce Institute for Materials Research and Innovation  and the Alan Turing Institute for Data Science.

A second key announcement is that Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Director of the new Francis Crick Institute, is to lead a review of the Research Councils, focusing on how they can “evolve to support research in the most effective ways by drawing on a range of evidence, including international comparisons and the views of the scientific business communities.” The review will report by summer 2015, with the full terms of reference to be published shortly. Perhaps surprisingly, this review follows just a year after the Triennial Review of the Research Councils, which concluded that the current structure of the Councils was fit for purpose.

Further significant elements of the strategy include a commitment to a “pipeline” approach to attracting and developing people to support the strategy, from investment in science and maths teaching in schools to the previously announced postgraduate student loans and support for women returning to industry following career breaks. Other points include a reaffirmation of the “eight great technologies” previously identified by the Government as key research priorities, an emphasis on catalysing innovation and building links between science and business, and investment in international partnerships.

While ecology might not feature prominently in the large-scale funding announcements, several ecological issues are alluded to in the report. Climate change and the depletion of natural resources are emphasised as key scientific challenges, whilst encouragingly bovine TB and ash dieback are both identified as challenges “where new evidence is required to facilitate good policy making”.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering offered a cautious welcome to the strategy, with Director Sarah Main commenting that whilst the strategy was “reassuring”, it “falls short” on a “commitment to ring-fence the science budget or to set long-term goals for science investment”. They suggested that three further themes would improve the strategy: stability, ambition and resilience.