The House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee has expressed worries over what it feels is an “unfocused” strategy to build the UK into a tech and science superpower.
Earlier this month, the committee published its report, and it specifically points out a history of short-term-focused policy decisions and “a proliferation of disparate strategies without an overarching vision” as causes for concern.
The lack of a science minister at the time of the report’s writing is also mentioned as a reason for the committee’s unease.
Of the grievances listed was the UK’s difficulties securing international partnerships. Specifically, the committee lists the government’s failure to work with the EU’s Horizon Europe research initiative and budget cuts made to Official Development Assistance as harming the nation’s reputation as a viable collaborative partner in technological innovations.
Clarity (or the lack thereof) is, in general, a major focus of the report. On top of the murkiness of the UK government’s overall tech strategy and the lack of a science minister, the government’s “own-collaborate-access” framework, meant to make policy on specific areas of technology clearer, was criticised for being “poorly understood and inconsistently applied”.
The government’s aim to leverage private funding to shore up its tech spending was met with criticism from the committee. In its words, “Industry has been insufficiently engaged with the Government’s strategy.”
At the end of the report, the committee laid out four key recommendations which could help shore up the government’s technological and scientific aspirations:
- Better define its science and technology strategy
- Explain how the “own-collaborate-access” framework will be applied
- Repair international relationships
- Set out specific reforms to areas such as public procurement, regulations and R&D tax credits and explain how they will support innovation
The Race to Net Zero
In the report, Committee Chair Julia King complimented the UK’s scientific prowess, despite the aforementioned concerns, saying: “Even with significantly lower spending than comparable countries, the UK’s excellent science base punches above its weight and can provide the tools to tackle major challenges like net zero.”
The UK’s 2050 net zero carbon emissions goal has been a hot-button issue in UK tech ever since it was signed into law in 2019 and the nation’s commitment to the goal was reinforced by the COP26 conference in 2021.
At COP26, in fact, then-UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak expressed a desire to “rewire” the nation’s financial system to better align with its net zero aspirations.
Since then, ecological middleman companies like EcoTree have risen in prominence, offering interested clients solutions like carbon footprint tracking platforms and carbon offsetting to help them hit net zero without radically changing the way their business operates. Whether such solutions actually do anything is up for debate.
However, some have questioned whether banks and businesses both in the UK and Europe as a whole are actually taking sustainability and net zero goals as seriously as they need to.
The European Central Bank claimed, in March 2022, that many banks were generating a lot of “white noise” about climate change without much in the way of tangible progress. A recent Guardian article similarly called for a worldwide boycott of businesses engaging in deceptive “greenwashing” marketing, in the same way South African goods were boycotted in the 1970s in protest of apartheid.
What Could This Mean for UK Tech?
In the short term, not much. The committee report is just that: a report. It’s not legislation or anything tangible that can immediately impact day-to-day operations, and it’s not even guaranteed that the government will enact any of the suggestions the committee has made.
While the report doesn’t do anything right now, it can be interpreted as a window into what value Parliament sees in the UK tech scene and what they believe the industry adds to the nation. Short of directly sitting down and talking to each member of Parliament, it’s hard to get that sort of data any other way.
Savvy businesspeople will also find that the insights found within can provide potential future opportunities.
If the government does, as an example, take steps to better establish the UK as a viable scientific partner internationally, your organisation might similarly be able to use that as a launchpad for building its own international relations. Similarly, a business with already-established international connections might be first in line for certain opportunities created by such an initiative.
Whether or not tangible change is made in the wake of this report and the general governmental shakeup that comes with Boris Johnson’s resignation, this report is an important look into what the government values in UK tech and might provide fascinating insights into how UK tech will grow in the future.