End Treasury meddling and restructure UKRI, say Blair and Hague

Former leaders call for science and technology delivery unit to end Whitehall ‘micromanagement’ of research funding and for ‘bespoke’ research councils

February 22, 2023

The UK must make science and technology its new “national purpose”, becoming a global leader on funding levels and creating a new science and tech delivery unit to end Treasury “micromanagement” of R&D, according to a report from former Labour prime minister Sir Tony Blair and former Conservative leader Lord Hague of Richmond.

“Technological superpowers such as the United States and China are investing heavily in their futures, raising the possibility that everyone else will be trapped behind these two forces,” says their report, A New National Purpose: Innovation Can Power the Future of Britain, published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

The UK “must find its niche in this new world” via “a radical new policy agenda, with science and technology at its core, that transcends the fray of 20th-century political ideology”, to ensure that the nation regards “science and technology as our primary productive force, talent as our primary resource and innovation as our primary driver of growth”, write Sir Tony and Lord Hague.

They call for the creation of a “science and tech policy and delivery unit across Number 10 and [the] Cabinet Office”, able to be “independent from vested interests and status-quo forces, and able to devise, drive and unblock a reform agenda”.

This is needed to end the situation whereby the Treasury “strongly micromanages science and technology spending and is the de-facto controller of the UK’s national R&D strategy”, they argue.

The pair also call for a further increase in “direct public R&D investment, aiming to become the leader among comparable nations in the metric of public R&D investment as a share of GDP within five years. This should be a key national benchmark, as is our Nato defence spending target of 2 per cent of GDP and our 2050 net-zero target.”

The report also advocates the scrapping of the Teaching Excellence Framework and the Knowledge Exchange Framework to reduce the level of audit imposed on universities, and for the creation of “special arrangements” in the Research Excellence Framework for “world-class” research universities.

It argues for reform of technology transfer offices to encourage more university spin-offs.

And it says UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) should be restructured “for 21st-century challenges”, ending its structure of nine research councils based on “decades-old academic disciplines” and instead creating “new bespoke research councils as needs arise”, focused on “strategic challenges and opportunities such as AI”.

Catapults “should be broadened in role, given greater independence, diversified in target and expanded in number so they can act as devolved hubs of regional development”, the report also says.

There should also be “a network of ‘Lovelace Disruptive Innovation Laboratories’ to create industries of the future”, forming “a network of research institutes tasked with securing our lead in established competitive areas like synthetic biology and AI as well as pioneering new ones with speculative, risky bets as we did in creating the Cambridge Laboratory for Molecular Biology in the 1950s”, it adds.


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