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Critique of recent article by ONWARD on reforming Whitehall to support Science & Technology

The ONWARD organisation has just published a new report Wired for Success’. There are areas in this report with which we find common cause. For example, sticking to plans and focussing on long term goals is surely a prerequisite for building a growth economy and is something many commentators continue to call for without any cross-party political support to date. Having said that, the calls for increasing R&D spend to 3.5% of GDP seem flawed.

Why? When it comes to measuring the effectiveness of R&D investment, the focus has mainly been on measuring inputs rather than outputs, with ‘output’ metrics restricted to number of jobs created and very high level aggregate macro-economic estimates of gross value added - this focus on R&D inputs makes it hard to assess the relative impact of different interventions. For example, if you spend £1 million developing a new bicycle and I spend £100K developing a new bicycle - if both are successful in the marketplace then by UK input measures (more R&D) you have done a better job whereas logic says from an output measure point of view, I have been more efficient and done a better job.

But the biggest and most glaring omission from the ONWARD report relates to how can theUK commercialise Science & Technology for accelerating economic growth. The government has repeatedly championed Britain as a “science and technology superpower”, rightly highlighting our universities’ world-leading artificial intelligence and life sciencesresearch. But such research can improve lives, deliver value to our society and strengthen our economy ONLY if it is commercialised and applied in the real world. Based on this thinking, the UK Government Science & Technology Framework has some major omissions which the R&D Society has commented on here.        

4 August 2023