Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
The UK Government loves catchy slogans. From “Getting Brexit Done”, through the Covid campaign of “Hands, Face, Space” and now the latest asylum plan of “Stop the Boats”, slogans are a great substitute for action.
As the Conservatives struggle in the polls the slogans are getting longer, such as the objective of “Becoming a global technology and science superpower”. An early example was to be the creation and establishment in Northumberland of a battery gigafactory called Britishvolt. Proudly trumpeting its launch in 2019, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed it as “a strong testament to the UK’s place at the helm of the global green industrial revolution”. It soon went bankrupt owing £160m: meanwhile the EU has 27 such gigafactories up and running and is actively planning more.
There had been two rather basic obstacles standing in the way of success: the company had no working battery design and no customers. But becoming a global technology and science superpower was still such a great slogan that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt would repeat it in his March budget statement.
There remain two massive roadblocks to achieving it. The first is that the UK has a dire shortage of skilled workers since Brexit. Research by Quantum Marketing last October revealed that there is an annual UK demand for 124,000 technicians and engineers each year but an annual shortage of at least 59,000. The National Grid alone will need some 400,000 energy workers if net zero is to be achieved by 2035. As the majority of existing engineers are in their mid-50s, and therefore likely to retire within ten years or so, this shortfall will only increase. Regarding scientists, the Centre for European Reform has established that in most years between 2004 and 2016 British universities employed more new scientists from EU countries than from the rest of the UK or indeed the rest of the world: by 2019 this number had fallen to zero. Because the UK is now a less attractive location for cutting-edge research, some leading UK scientists have recently moved to the EU.
This leads directly to the second roadblock: the increasing need today for international collaboration in research work. The Royal Society has calculated that in 1981 nearly 90% of research papers by UK-based authors included only UK research. Thirty years later over half of the UK’s research output was the direct result of working with others on an international basis.
Vital to progressing the superpower objective would be renewed membership of the flagship EU Horizon programme, currently worth €95bn over the coming years. Analysis by the leading science journal Silicon Republic confirms that the UK had received the second largest funding of any country during its pre-Brexit membership, 12% of the total available across the EU. The UK also co-ordinated more projects than any other EU country, and collaborated closely with scientists in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden. Around one-third of UK research papers were co-authored with other EU and associated countries, compared with less than 20% shared with researchers from the USA.
Frozen out of the programme while the UK failed to implement the originally agreed Northern Ireland Protocol, Rishi Sunak’s canny renegotiation via the Windsor Framework has re-opened the door to potentially re-joining Horizon. But nothing has happened. Rishi dares not be seen by the extreme anti-EU faction which sets so much of the Government agenda as cosying up even further to the EU. Claiming to be concerned about the cost and unconvinced about the benefits, he is stalling on a decision. Even Lord Frost, architect of the hard Brexit Trade and Co-operation agreement, sees the merits of re-joining.
Speaking to The Guardian newspaper, Nobel Laureate and former President of the Royal Society Professor Venki Ramakrishnan said that science should never have become a hostage to other political issues, adding that it should be “an urgent priority” for the UK to re-join, a process that anyway may take a further two years to crank up again to its full potential. Professor Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, also pulled no punches saying “Fundamentally there are three main science groupings in the world: North America, Asia and of course Europe. If you are outside one of these groupings, you are going to find it very difficult to be a major science nation because you are not part of the collaborations. You are not part of the network: you are not setting the agendas for the future”.
UK scientists understand this even if the Government does not.
While the country increasingly becomes a political and manufacturing minnow, in slogans at least the UK proudly leads the world. Maybe that suggests a more realistic objective: becoming a Slogan Superpower?
Meanwhile the official objective remains a distant dream, far away over the horizon.