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Critique of the UK Government Science and Technology Framework

This is the first of a series of review papers prepared as background to the roundtable discussions planned for later this year by the R&D Society commercialisation think tank in collaboration with the Triple Chasm Company. The Triple Chasm Approach provides a new evidence-based approach to understanding how science and technology innovation can deliver social, environmental and commercial impact.
In March this year (2023), the government published two policy papers related to Science & Technology: The first, The Science and Technology Framework and the second, The UK’s International Technology Strategy. These policy papers come against a plethora of policy papers on Science & Technology, R&D and Industrial Strategy released over the last fewyears and in the last year alone these were preceded by significant reviews and recommendations on Science & Technology policy by the House of Lords, UKRI (commenting on the 2020 R&D roadmap) and the Foundation for Science and Technology.[1] So, against this backdrop and in summary, what were the key conclusions of these reports:
· A whole-systems approach will be vital to realise the ambition of the 2020 Roadmap. This includes creating funding models that support the full research and innovation system.
· The Government has not identified the areas of science and technology that it wants the country to specialise in, nor has it been clear about how specific its priorities will be.
· Need for clear targets and outcome measures. There must be a laser focus on implementation, or “science and tech superpower” will become an empty slogan.
· There is a profusion of sectoral strategies in areas such as artificial intelligence and life sciences that need to be consolidated into a logical whole.
· Economic growth based on science & technology as a long-term endeavour requiring stability in policy strategy requiring consistent cross- party support, funding, and messaging from the Government.

So, against these findings how do the March reports onScience & Technology stack up?
It is good that the government is now talking about a Science and Technology Framework – it is however a shame that the missing piece is any kind of framework! In overall terms this so-calledframework paper is long on vision and general aspiration but short on specifics.
In particular, the approach adopted serves to highlight the gap between rhetoric and reality.

The title talks about taking a systems approach to UK science and technology, but there is no subsequent attempt to define system boundaries in any way; and for a paper billed as the UK Science and Technology Framework there is sadly no systematic framework underpinning the discussion and conclusions. This is compounded by the absence of any integrated thinking about the relationship between technologies, markets, and commercialisation - the translation challenge does not merit a single mention in the paper, neither is there any mention of impact (either how it is defined or measured).
Critically, while the paper talks about technology, skills,and investment, it says very little about changing market structures, regulation, and intellectual property, which are critical for a ‘joined-up’
In short this is a disappointing paper which provides little guidance to researchers, investors, and business on strategic national priorities.
The specific sections of the paper can be characterized asfollows:
1. Identifying Critical Technologies
Not a great start to this Strategic TechnologyFramework
The Technology Taxonomy is flawed in 4critical ways:
a. It represents a curious mixture of technologies and industrial sectors ie there is no robust ontology.
b. The rationale for selecting the 5 highlighted ‘technology-related’ areas is not clear: is it UK strength or market relevance? Push or pull?
c. Identification of these 5 areas is based on a curious set of ‘parameters’ which can best be described as a ‘mixed bag’ with no underlying logic
d. The definition of some of these 5 areas is also curious: for example, AI specifically covers ‘machines’, while semi-conductors cover ‘electronicmaterials’
This poor starting point in definingtechnologies clearly undermines the choice of so-called critical technologies
2. Signalling UK Strengths and Ambition
The emphasis here seems to be on signalling without explicitly articulating strengths. This depends on very broad-brush statements, where the emphasis seems to be on communication, sharing, and
promotion of general sentiments. There is an important aspiration about more joined up thinking across departments but no evidence of how this will happen, a moot point especially given the multiple re-organizations of ministries over the last three years.
3. Investment in Research & Development
The stated outcomes are quite vague: while the absence of any specific commitments at least has the merit that any perceptions of failure can be easily countered. Any specific comments are
re-announcements of already announced initiatives around levelling-up, new accelerators, and references to other reports (for example the Nurse review, which we will review in the next paper in these series), including a review of UKRI, and the obligatory reference to reducing bureaucracy.
4. Talent & Skills
This section asserts UK strength in technical and entrepreneurial talent at a general level and then talks about the need for more agility. There is no real action plan but it talks about the creation of a
DfE Skills Dashboard which suggests that any clarity on this subject will come in the future. The commitment to extending maths education is mentioned again, although at best any benefits of this are unlikely to be manifested for another decade.
5. Financing Innovative Science &Technology Companies
It is good that this subject has its own heading but the concerns highlighted are about closing the perceived gap with the US, building a better financing eco-system, and strengthening domestic
capital provision. The last two are clearly very important but there is no new framework - just a general statement about work being done by the Treasury to improve cross-government planning. There are useful statements about the importance of scaling, the role of the British Business Bank and future changes to pensions structures but no framework which directly addresses the funding challenges.
6. Procurement
It is good that the role of Government as a customer is highlighted: this is not a new idea (first proposed in the DTI First Innovation Report 2003 and frequently repeated as an ambition in
subsequent Government policy papers) but once again there is talk about future plans and no commitment to bias procurement towards small and medium size companies, which has been proposed for a long time now (and indeed is included in the new US IRA legislation)
7. International Opportunities
There are some broad policy aspirations but nothing new - these have been talked about the last two decades-and there is no mention of how the UK will mitigate the challenges of growing trade and
cooperation with continental Europe post-Brexit. However, the International Technology Strategy Paper produced at roughly the same time by the FCDO (paradoxically) provides more detailed assessment of the opportunities in AI, Quantum Applications and Synthetic Biology; it also provides more insights into thinking about sustainable development, and partnering to build infrastructure,
albeit without a rigorous analytical framework.
8. Access to Physical and Digital Infrastructure
It is good that this is identified as being a critical part of the overall science and technology framework. The report recognises the critical role of Data as an enabler – but defers anydetail pending a cross-government plan. The absence of a strategic analytical framework however suggests that some areas for funding will be picked reflecting the lobbying powers of different ‘stakeholders’. But we reserve judgement on this until we see what exactly is planned.
9. Regulation and Standards
The focus here seems to be on asserting that post-Brexit freedoms can make the UK a more attractive destination. We have to be sceptical of these claims, given so little has been achieved in the 7 years since the referendum; perhaps more critically, the need for harmonised legislation in critical areas, for example AI and GMO, to take 2 examples, means that this perceived freedom in regulation and standards will likely have little impact - in any event, the paper does not set out any framework for how this will achieved.
10. Innovative Public Sector
This report acknowledges that the public sector can play a role broader than just procurement influence, by harnessing innovation to deliver new products and services -but the UK track record in
this area has been poor to date (for example compare the digitisation of national infrastructure between UK and India). And this paper re-states previous initiatives and only makes some general aspirational statements.

Progress and Next Steps
This section consists of some general statements and then mentions supposed specific wins, such as ARIA whose precise objectives are still unclear; it also extols the new Digital Growth Grant where an existing supplier with a strong record is being replaced by Barclays Bank - to the consternation of most observers in the UK science and technology eco-system. This suggests that this framework is best
seen as a work in progress, which needs a lot more work.

What is needed going forward?
We clearly need a robust framework to tackle these challenges head-on.
We plan to develop and test this in the forthcoming round table discussions using the Triple Chasm Approach.

[1] S&T superpower: more than a slogan – HoL report August 2022 
Delivering a UK S&T strategy FST report August 2022 
UKRI report on roundtables related to above report – March 2023