Liz Truss pledges 'high growth economy' in leadership bid

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Prime Minister Liz Truss has been warned that the UK could be facing an exodus of the country’s top brains and innovative science and technology firms due to the Government’s “lack of understanding” of the science and research sectors, according to a new report. While Nusrat Ghani was made Britain’s new Science and Investment Minister last week after the position was left unfilled for a number of weeks following the resignation of George Freeman, it appears she may have a mountain to climb in order to meet some of the UK’s ambitious targets for the sector. 

For instance, Boris Johnson’s Government pledged to make the UK a “science superpower” and said it would redouble efforts towards reaching 2.4 percent of its GDP spent on research and development by 2027. 

But a report by Ridge and Partners, a multi-disciplinary consultancy, has revealed that getting this point could be a tough ask, given that up to one in six (16 percent) have firms plans to relocate overseas over the next three years. 

The Building a Future for Science and Technology report also found that 88 percent of firms have considered moving abroad, while Government’s limit on employing overseas talent was cited as a policy adversely affecting 27 percent of the companies interviewed. 

While a new Science Minister has now been hired, the research community had also signalled its worry over the sustained period of time for which the position was left vacant. The 103 science and technology companies involved in the Ridge report also made note of local-level problems, blaming issues on local authorities, city planners, and science parks.

These issues are allegedly impacting recruitment and in turn growth, something Ms Truss claims to be a major champion of. Over a third of the firms surveyed are said to be struggling to fill crucial support roles such as lab technicians and admin staff, who are hugely affected by local housing costs.

 

 

Meanwhile, almost half (48 percent) are also struggling to fill more senior roles, while nearly a third (31 percent) report they need to be closer to a pool of talent with other science and tech businesses in close proximity. And for many, that could involve moving operations abroad.

And nearly one in four (24 percent) want to be closer to major academic institutions.  And out of the 103 firms, 30 percent feel their growth plans are being limited by their lack of available suppliers.

Liz Sparrow, Partner, Science and Tech Lead at Ridge and Partners, comments: “There’s no lack of ambition or opportunity for growth within the science and tech communities. Indeed, the companies we studied expect to grow by 52 percent over the next three years.

“But they need to be in the right environments to grow in this way – that means places with the right infrastructure, transport links, housing, and premises to attract the partners, suppliers, and talent they need.

“Policymakers cannot afford to simply focus on the needs of big players. Diversity in science or tech community clusters – be this in terms of company size or typology – is key if all are to thrive. Every company which exits these diverse ecosystems and relocates overseas, or simply fails to thrive, weakens things for everyone else. To protect one we must plan for all.

“No single body can do this. Joined-up thinking is needed between the public and private sectors, between the UK’s Government, its cities, regions, and science parks. Collaboration is key if we’re to create – and keep – the UK’s tech/science powerhouses.”

This also comes as a number of top UK-based researchers have said they are considering moving to the EU in order to access grants the bloc had promised to deliver them under its £84billion Horizon Europe programme.

This is the EU’s flagship innovation project which the UK had initially negotiated to participate in under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). It is supposed to let successful applicants access prestigious grants and collaborate with European partners on key projects. But despite scientists having nothing to do with the Brexit dispute, the EU told Britain it cannot take part until the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute. 

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20-months on, and the impasse is still dragging on, with those promised grants being held onto by the EU until Britain rejoins. The EU has even threatened to pull the plug on those funds unless researchers move to the EU or an associated country. 

This has tempted many researchers to consider packing up shop and moving abroad to receive the funds, risking an exodus of Britain’s top brains to the EU. However, the Government has argued that the EU is violating the TCA by blocking Britain’s access to Horizon, and has launched “formal proceedings” in an attempt to end the delay. 

But if this bid proves unsuccessful, the UK may have a backup plan which was drafted up by the former Science Minister. Under Mr Freeman’s “Plan B”, it was promised that successful UK-based Horizon applicants would still receive funding that they were meant to get from the EU, but the Government will instead cover the costs instead of European funding agencies. 

However, whether Ms Ghani will follow this blueprint remains somewhat unclear, although the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) maintains that it has “developed bold and ambitious alternative plans that will enhance our position as a global science superpower”.

BEIS has been contacted for comment. 

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