Did Boris Johnson’s ‘science superpower’ plan misfire?

Outgoing prime minister’s pro-science messaging has been ever-present during his time in Downing Street but has he delivered for research? Jack Grove considers his legacy

August 12, 2022
Boris Johnson amid explosion
Source: Getty/iStock montage

How will history judge Boris Johnson’s record on science? Almost exactly three years after he set out his first policies to make the UK “continue to be a science superpower”, and weeks away from his exit from Downing Street, it seems the consensus will not be kind.

“Morale in the scientific community is much lower than it was three years ago,” reflected Lord Rees of Ludlow, the former Royal Society president and Astronomer Royal, whose Science and Technology Committee in the House of Lords published a highly critical report on the government’s approach to science earlier this month. As its title, Science and Technology Superpower”: More than a Slogan?, suggests, there are significant doubts that the catchy moniker referenced time and again by the prime minister is little more than “empty sloganeering” unless concrete metrics are published setting out the UK’s progress towards spending 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development by 2027.

“There is a growing concern that not enough bright young people in the UK are choosing to be academics, nor are we remaining attractive to foreign talent,” reflected Lord Rees on the dark mood in British science.

That gloominess about academia is not just about the likely loss of UK access to Horizon Europe, the European Union’s €90 billion (£76 billion) flagship funding initiative, a loss that Lord Rees describes as a “major disaster”, nor the downgrading of a key promise to increase research spending to £22 billion a year by 2024. Instead, some £20 billion will be spent annually and the £22 billion will not be achieved until 2026, pending a looming spending review.

“The one thing that academics want is a bit of long-term consistency but instead we see the science minister changing constantly, being downgraded from Cabinet and now there is no science minister at all,” commented Lord Rees on the Whitehall churn that has seen four different science ministers since July 2019.

“The big disappointment is that no one has come near to explaining what this ‘science superpower’ commitment actually meant in practice,” continued Lord Krebs of Wytham, a former chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, who also sits on the Lords science committee.

“It’s easy to come out with slogans on the stump and talk about growth, but we haven’t seen how we might grow our tech businesses into the next Google, Microsoft or GSK,” he added, stating that the government’s ideas around supporting science were “more skeletons than real plans”.

That said, however, both Labour and Conservative governments of recent times have failed to achieve oft-repeated spending targets – particularly for private research and development – while the next world-conquering technology companies, which seem to pop up regularly in Silicon Valley, remain elusive.

But the disappointment with Mr Johnson’s support for science still feels palpable as he has so often cast himself as pro-science. Speaking on the steps of Downing Street after taking office in July 2019, he name-checked life sciences, technology and academia as “enormous strengths of the economy”, the UK’s “extraordinary bioscience sector” and promised to “change tax rules to provide extra incentives to invest in capital and research”. Behind the scenes, his then chief aide, Dominic Cummings, also made no secret that he had only taken the job on condition that research spending should double, including the creation of a new agency for “high-risk, high-reward” science, which would later become the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria).

The early signs were also positive. During the brief return of Mr Johnson’s brother Jo, now Lord Johnson of Marylebone, as universities minister in the summer of 2019, the prime minister announced the return of two-year post-study work visas for international students – a policy vital for UK research given the massive cross-subsidy provided by overseas tuition fees – and later unveiled plans to simplify and fast-track visas for foreign researchers, cut research bureaucracy and award £300 million more to maths research.

The creation of the new National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), chaired by the prime minister and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, which would bring together ministers from different departments, was also seen as a clever way to focus minds across government on science. A new Office for Science and Technology Strategy (OSTS) is also helping to glue together scientific efforts across Whitehall.

But the Lords’ committee has cast doubt on whether the complex web of committees, councils and government science offices, plus additional bodies to coordinate their work, will achieve much. While it welcomed the commitment that the prime minister will chair meetings of the NSTC, it notes that it had only met three times since it was established in July 2021, while the OSTS has “yet to publish any substantive documents or to reveal what it intends to do”.

“Patrick Vallance is a very talented individual but he was the only witness who gave evidence to us who had a clear vision how all these parts fit together – he got it, but I don’t think any other officials could explain how these committees and councils would work,” said Lord Krebs, who questioned too how these bodies would interact with UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) own governance boards.

With Sir Patrick stepping down as chief scientist in April, his successor will need a “quick tutorial from Patrick” on how this all worked, Lord Krebs added. “They will certainly need his political nous to find their way through the political jungle ahead of them.”

Others are more scathing on the failings of Mr Johnson’s government. “It has ransacked research – there is just no evidence that any of the money that Johnson said he’d put back into science has arrived,” said Douglas Kell, former executive chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

“Maybe this money will happen in time, but I judge governments on the strike rate at which research is funded – how much good stuff is actually receiving money – and it’s still no higher than one in six,” said Professor Kell, now based at the University of Liverpool. The promise to increase research and development spending was, in his view, “one of many lies” made during Mr Johnson’s “Brexit lie-athon”, he added.

“There is the odd success but nothing to do with the government – Sarah Gilbert was only able to produce a vaccine at Oxford because her work had been funded for years, and it could then be used on Covid,” he concluded.

The unprecedented cuts to in-flight research projects funded by overseas aid last year revealed the government’s true attitude towards science, said Professor Kell. “It was maximum damage for minimum savings,” he explained of the sudden decision by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to cut hundreds of millions of pounds in funding, leaving UKRI with a £120 million gap between allocations and commitments.

“Neither Liz Truss nor Rishi Sunak has said anything about science during their campaigns, so it’s not clear if either will be any better – frankly, I’m not interested in any more announcements. I just want to see funding rates go up,” he added.

That sentiment was echoed by James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, who said the Lords’ report “rightly sounds a fairly pessimistic note” when answering the question of whether science superpower is more than a slogan.

“Personally, I’d prefer we junk the vapid slogans and get serious about baselines, targets and long-term strategic frameworks, in the way that Gordon Brown attempted with his 10-year framework for science and innovation almost exactly 20 years ago,” said Professor Wilsdon.

Others were less despondent about the Johnson government’s record on science. A report published earlier this month by Onward, a thinktank created by Will Tanner, Theresa May’s deputy head of policy in 10 Downing Street, urged a “rethink” of the “science superpower strategy”, but its co-author Matthew Burnett said scientists should not be overly gloomy.

“We’ve had a few years during the Covid crisis when science had a profile like never before – the public were seeing exactly why it mattered – and then Boris ran with that torch, saying we should be a science superpower and how it would help us reinvent ourselves after Brexit,” he explained.

“We’re now a few years down the track and we’ve started to lose some of that goodwill as other things like the war [in Ukraine] and cost of living grab our attention, so there is a sense that we need to lock in that political support now.

“I don’t think that means reforming our structures again – we would be better off working with what we have now,” he added. Looking on the positive side, “science is still a political winner that everyone can get behind, even if there remains much to be done”.

Whether the science superpower slogan helped research remained less clear. “Johnson was characterised by his skill in creating slogans – ‘get Brexit done’, ‘take back control’ and ‘science superpower’,” said Lord Krebs. “At the moment, there is a big question about whether it was anything more than a slogan.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com


The Johnson record on science

Positive:

  • Three-year settlement for UK Research and Innovation, with an extra £1.1 billion annually by 2024-25
  • Return of post-study work visas
  • Fast-track visas for researchers, though with patchy evidence for impact of these changes

Negative:

  • Unexpected cuts to research funded by UK overseas aid, causing chaos for researchers and damaging overseas research links
  • Likely loss of Horizon Europe association
  • Failure to deliver promised doubling of research and development funding – will rise to £20 billion by 2024-25, not £22 billion
  • Science minister no longer sits in Cabinet – relegated to junior role, and position is now vacant

Too soon to tell:

  • Introduction of Cabinet sub-committees on science
  • Reviews of UK Research and Innovation and research bureaucracy
  • Advanced Research and Invention Agency – new agency has faced difficult start after first-choice chief executive quit before starting

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Did Boris Johnson’s ‘science superpower’ strategy misfire?

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