How this Government can make the North a science superpower: Chris Skidmore

The Government is promising more investment in scientific research in northern England. PIcture: Simon Hulme
The Government is promising more investment in scientific research in northern England. PIcture: Simon Hulme
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No one can doubt the Prime Minister’s determination to invest in science and technology as a key priority for this administration. Boris Johnson has committed to doubling the public research and development budget over five years, a giant leap towards meeting our pledge of spending 2.4 per cent of GDP, both public and private, on research and development by 2027.

This represents the single biggest increase in public R&D spending by any government in the post-war period. And at this key juncture in our history, it perhaps represents the most significant increase ever.

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Let us be clear why we are doing this. We believe the future of the UK’s prosperity – as we leave the EU, and chart our own course for the 2020s and beyond – lies in making our nation a global science superpower.

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Our future lies in those cutting-edge ideas, advanced technologies and rewarding new jobs that will power our economy and transform our society.

We recognise that, if we are to meet the global challenges that are facing us in this, the third decade of the 21st century, the solution to some of our core “missions” such as reducing our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 – which I signed into law as interim Energy Minister last summer – will be found in investing in R&D, new technologies and our world- leading scientific expertise.

But this isn’t just about the money, or how it is spent. Where we choose to invest is of equal, critical importance. The Prime Minister has declared that this is a “One Nation” government, committed to “levelling up”, so that every corner of the UK can benefit from its determination to share our future prosperity.

For science and innovation, we too need a “One Nation” strategy for R&D. Already, this government has begun to make significant investment across the UK. Consider our net zero mission alone. We have won our bid to host the prestigious COP26 climate forum in Glasgow, the Offshore Renewable Catapult based in Northumberland and Glasgow grew its income by almost a half last year, and the Drax power station in Yorkshire begun its journey, driven by innovation in carbon capture and storage, to be the world’s first carbon-negative power plant.

Through the National Productivity Investment Fund, we are investing in the R&D, as well as national and local infrastructure, that will be crucial for economic growth. We are investing in our productivity at the highest sustained level in 40 years.

This already includes an additional £7bn in R&D since 2016. New initiatives such as the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the Strength in Places Fund have been established, and amazing new projects are already under way, from the £80m automotive battery industrialisation centre in Coventry that will allow companies to quickly develop their capabilities to manufacture batteries and get them to market, to the £10m Northern Pathology Imaging Collaborative in Leeds, which will use artificial intelligence to develop more intelligent analysis of medical imaging and diagnose diseases at an earlier stage.

And we have continued to invest in successful schemes like the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund, which last year invested in world-leading projects all over the UK, from the University of Leicester’s Meteor centre which will help us revolutionise satellite design and production, to the York Global Initiative for Safe Autonomy, which will address the challenges faced by the worldwide introduction of robotics and connected autonomous systems.

Yet we also know that during this time, we have seen the so-called “Golden Triangle” of Cambridge, Oxford and London continue to benefit disproportionately from public investment, compared with other regions of the UK.

Transparency in research funding is essential to begin to tackle this long-standing issue. That’s why I have, as Science and Research Minister, commissioned UK Research and Innovation to publish new data on how their investments are balanced across the regions. This is a first step on the way to greater transparency of where our money is going.

Better understanding, and a richer evidence base, will be critical to achieving our levelling up mission. We have a chance to address these disparities, and I want us to seize it.

Chris Skidmore is Science Minister. This is an edited version of a speech he gave at Durham University Teaching and Learning Centre.