Science plan for 2023 unveiled as UK strives for ‘supepower’ status

EU 'weakened' as global superpower after Brexit claims Buiter

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Science Minister George Freeman has told all about his plans for the science and technology sector in 2023, which he claims can put Britain on a path to becoming a “science superpower”. The term has been knocking about for a few years, with various leaders pledging to achieve the goal of pushing Britain to the forefront of the science and technology space in the coming years. But amid the huge strain on Treasury finances, researchers feared funding cuts as Chancellor Jeremy Hunt was expected to prioritise public services like the NHS in the Autumn Budget. But to the surprise of many within the industry, the science and technology sector managed to dodge a bullet, with Mr Hunt instead pledging to turn the UK into “the world’s next Silicon Valley”.

However, much of that task falls under Mr Freeman’s remit, the man who claims he first coined the “science superpower” term. In fact, as Minister for Science, Research, Technology and Innovation, he is responsible for 75 percent of the UK budget – £11billion per annum.

The Science Minister believes becoming a “science superpower” is more than achievable. And this year, he said there are some huge opportunities to take advantage of.

Mr Freeman told “Science and technology are fundamental not just to UK growth but also to our geopolitical security, partly because we are in a global race, partly because we’re up against China and Russia who are now clearly prepared to use science and technology for hostile reasons for us.

“What Britain can do is target some specific areas around the world, some urgent global challenges where we have got real science and technology expertise and convening power.

“For example, polar research. The north and south poles are becoming increasingly geopolitically valuable and contested, bot militarily and in terms of satellite coverage…We are a very strong international leader in protecting the Arctic and Antarctic against aggressive sovereign capture and certainly against militarisation and industrial exploitation.

“But there are huge science opportunities down at either end of the globe. We are a natural leader. Down in the South Pole, the British Antarctic Survey and South Atlantic is us, Chile, Australia and New Zealand.”

Mr Freeman explained that there is the potential to form a science supergroup with these nations under a multilateral deal. He added that in the North Pole, there is the opportunity to strike a joint agreement with Canada, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Greenland and Finland.

Mr Freeman said: “We have very good relationships with all these countries. I chair the Northern Ministerial Baltic/Nordic Science Forum and I have suggested to them that we would be keen to do more with them, put more money in and create some polar research fellowships and share data.”

All of this comes after Britain was chucked out of the EU’s £80billion Horizon Europe programme that provides grants to scientists working on anything from climate change to AI. It is the bloc’s flagship innovation scheme and it would have let British researchers access these prestigious EU grants and collaborate with European partners.

It was agreed as part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement in 2020 that the UK would take part in the programme. But amid the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol, Brussels told the UK that it cannot take part until the political dispute is resolved.

The UK science community has repeatedly argued that collaboration is crucial, and has warned that Britain may not be able to reach “science superpower” status without being involved in the programme.

While Mr Freeman agrees that collaboration is key, and recognises the importance of prestigious EU fellowships Horizon participation includes, he says his Plan B could be a “better option”. This is despite the minister still waiting for the bloc to end the three-year delay that appears to be hamstringing the progress of science community, with participation still a priority for the Government.

But there is much the UK can do outside the scheme, which Mr Freeman argues should bring much to look forward for British scientists. One of the main elements of his backup plan is the goal of striking multilateral partnerships to make up for the absence of European collaboration.

He added: “Another area we can work on would be space. China, Russia and America are all chucking up loads of satellites. There are no rules and it is a bit of a wild west. The debris problem is huge. Over the last year I have come out and said that we need sensible, business-like regulations for space. We should start to make sure that when you are launching satellites, you can do in-flight maintenance and you can retrieve them.

“Britain is a leader in this, so why don’t we set up an international club of countries committed to space sustainability? That would involve Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Japan and Australia. Those are the main space nations outside the EU.”

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Overall, Mr Freeman has argued that there are six key objectives that will help Britain prove successful in its journey to achieving science superpower status.

These include world-class science in an increasingly competitive world, creating a global impact for global good, and attracting much more global R+D inward investment. Mr Freeman has argued that this will require a reformation of our research funding and career ecosystem to ensure we “continue to punch above our weight in world class research”.

However, there are challenges that the sector still faces, separate to its exclusion from Horizon Europe, which may threaten to jeopardise the minister’s ultimate goal.

For instance, a three-month period without any science minister ensued after Mr Freeman stepped down during the frenzy of resignations that eventually led to the departure of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Mr Freeman admitted that this was “three months lost” for the UK’s progress in negotiations with Europe on Horizon. But James Wilson, a professor from the University of Sheffield, warned that whoever would be next to enter the role would acquire a “mounting to-do list” that piled up while the position was unfilled. Now reclaiming his old role, it is up to Mr Freeman to reverse the damage.

One issue that has been raised by the research community is the poor wages delivered to PHD students and early and mid-career researchers, who have demanded more funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

But Mr Freeman said this is something he is working on addressing. He said: “I have made very clear that part of the science superpower and innovation nation missions means we have got to improve our offer for early, mid and late-stage researchers. We are starting with the mid-stage in the new year…and we want to make sure we are most heavily affected by Horizon.

“But we have to improve all three. On the early stage, it is the hardest time and it is the time that they get the very least amount of job security.

“The power of having a really powerful research where we give people five year, six or seven or even ten year tenure through a fellowship programme will be really attractive for the UK…but we have to really support our talent at all the three stages.”

He added that UKRI has been given a 30 percent funding boost over the last three years, and in the New Year he will be looking at what the funding body will be doing internally to make sure Britain is retaining and attracting the top brains.

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