As the new Prime Minister of the UK, Liz Truss, and her team of Ministers get to grips with many pressing issues both nationally and globally, SCI’s President Paul Drechsler CBE, shares his thoughts on why science, technology and innovation need to be on the new leadership’s list of priorities.
The new UK Government leadership has been in place for just a few days. What are your thoughts on their initial plans to help the UK weather the ongoing economic storm?
It is very encouraging to see the intense focus that the Prime Minister has on future economic growth. When we consider the vital ingredients that will enable long-term and sustained economic growth; science, technology and innovation are right at the top. Without doubt it is vital that the science community and related industries clearly communicate the opportunities and priorities for action in terms of government policy to grow the economy at a sustained rate of 2.5%.
What would you say the priorities should be for government policy?
Well there are a number of themes that government must clearly focus on, not least climate change and energy transition. I do think the Government has a huge opportunity placed squarely in front of it, which is to complete a thorough investigation of the lessons learnt through the response to the pandemic. This huge global challenge mobilised science, collaboration, research and development on a scale never seen before, resulting in the development of vaccines in record time.
I believe that there is much that can be captured and learnt from this to help accelerate innovation in the UK, and indeed globally. The pandemic has provided us with some great lessons to help accelerate solutions to climate change, energy transition and world health.
With all of that said, I would contend that climate change poses the greatest threat to health, global stability and economic growth. The only way we are going to deliver solutions to this, and the energy crisis, is through the work of brilliant science and technology professionals across the public and private sector, along with policies and funding that create the opportunity for faster innovation.
Are you hopeful that the new leadership will prioritise science in tackling these issues?
I would hope that the new Prime Minister and her team would be enthusiastic champions of science, technology, innovation and universities. If not, it is part of our role to inform and to inspire them.
With that said, enthusiasm is a fantastic ingredient, but it is not sufficient for global leadership or competitive advantage. As I said it is encouraging to see the focus on long-term economic growth, but this has to be combined with a step change in the level of investment in R&D, and an annual funded increase to 3-4% of GDP is long overdue.
We have also seen the immense benefits of Industrial Strategy. I am convinced that a national strategy for UK science and technology would offer us a great way to select and prioritise the key themes for collective effort and investment.
If the new Prime Minister were to focus on just one long term priority, what would you want that to be?
There has probably never been a greater need or better time for science and industry to rise up and meet the challenges this country, and the world, faces head on. We know that our prime source of competitive advantage is people. Nelson Mandela famously said ‘Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world,’ he was right.
We need to transform our approach to education so as to increase the number of young people taking on science, technology, engineering and maths, to fully seize the opportunities and to fill the skilled roles that the UK needs to weather this, and future economic storms.
This is where the new cabinet is so important, particularly in ministerial offices of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Business Energy & Industrial Strategy, Education, and Science. These Departments, working together creatively, can establish the best possible foundation on which businesses can build if they can be confident that people with the right skills are being developed to rise to the challenges in front of us.