Pessimists are a dime a dozen in today’s world. To be sure, the future holds plenty of challenging issues. How can Britain make its way in the world? Will we adapt to an ageing population, to automation, to climate change? What kind of country we want to build post Brexit? All of these are legitimate sources of worry for many. But worry has a tendency to breed despair, and despair too often leads to inaction. I believe we are better served by being bold and taking action to match our ambition.
This spirit of boldness feels especially important as I begin my work as the new minister for science and innovation. In my first weeks, I have been so impressed by the remarkable stats showing how the UK punches well above its weight in the quality and impact of our research, not just in science but in the social sciences and arts too.
It’s clear that we have great strengths to build on: Britain has a long history of excellence in science and technology.
This is the nation that nurtured the curiosity of Sir Isaac Newton, the engineering brilliance of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the pioneering mind of Professor Stephen Hawking. What we need now is continue this fine tradition; to support and harness the revolutionary research coming from our institutions now; but also have the courage to identify and incubate the ideas from young innovators, entrepreneurs and scientists that could transform our society in the future.
I’m convinced that if we want to embrace the possibilities of the future, we need to do more, and we need to do it deliberately and with a long term plan to build a Britain fit for the future, that maps out a clear direction, and looks beyond electoral cycles.
First of all, we must invest, and encourage others to invest alongside us. Just as we help defend our country’s security by our commitment to spending the NATO target 2% of GDP on defence, we should be making equally ambitious commitments to prepare for the future through R&D. In last year’s Industrial Strategy White Paper, the Government set the goal of increasing the UK’s R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 – an increase of some two-thirds – and an ambition for this to reach 3% in the longer term. Later this year we will be setting out a roadmap to plan how we will get to this 2.4% target.
Today, I am beginning on this journey with an investment of £70m in new manufacturing centres to speed up the development of new medicines which will in turn boost jobs, enhance the NHS and ensure better care for people when they are unwell. Over the coming weeks and months you can expect to see many more such announcements, in fields from Artificial Intelligence to Engineering to the Creative Industries.
Core to guiding our investments and targeting where our money goes will be the UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), a new body that brings together ten R&D funding organisations. This merger will create what we hope will be the world’s best innovation funding agency, one that can take a strategic view of our research needs.
Although UKRI will officially launch in April, I am proud that today it is unveiling its first major project: a roadmap of the scientific infrastructure of the country, to understand the resources we have, from particle accelerators to longitudinal data sets to research ships (yes, including Boaty McBoatface). This sort of systematic mapping is the kind of thing only an organisation like UKRI can do, and it will help set our investment priorities for the future.
In part, this is about making sure what government invests in addresses the big challenges facing our country and the world at large. Our Industrial Strategy sets four Grand Challenges as a target for government and business investment: artificial intelligence, clean energy, meeting the needs of an ageing society, and the future of mobility. Tackling these will be the focus of the £4.7bn Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund that will channel public and business investment.
And because these challenges are global in their nature and vast in their scale, we are committed to being open to working with the best and brightest from around the world to tackle them. No country can do this on their own. This means, among other things, securing the best possible scientific relationship with the EU post-Brexit.
Investment and a detailed strategy are but two sides of the triangle of success. We need to give voice and freedom to the optimists on whom progress depends. Ultimately, successful innovation depends on human ingenuity and a can-do spirit. No politician should forget that the best ideas don’t always reside in Whitehall, but in the minds of researchers, of entrepreneurs, and of innovators. This means encouraging disruptive businesses through proportionate, tech-savvy rules; it means letting consumers get the benefits of new technologies; and it means giving researchers the freedom and backing to try out new ideas.
Britain has no need to be scared of the future - if we are bold enough to invest in research and science and back our innovators then we will be able to control our own technological destiny.
“Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose”. These words from US President, Lyndon B Johnson, in a 1963 speech about looking to the future, ring so true for Britain some 55 years on - decisions from the past cannot be recovered and we should not dwell on them with worry and despair.
We should look forward and, if we are able to seize our opportunity to make Britain a 21st Century scientific and technological powerhouse, then tomorrow will surely be ours to win and own.
Sam Gyimah MP is the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation