Freeman: science superpower bid is escape from ‘terrible’ years

Tory conference also hears ex-minister warn of ‘perverse situation’ in which ‘DfE is cutting R&D spending’ via tuition fee freeze

October 3, 2023
George Freeman
Source: UK parliament

A minister has pitched the “science superpower” vision for the UK as the solution to a “terrible” period of “turbulent political economy” and to a “broken” economic model.

George Freeman, the science minister, was speaking at a fringe meeting at the Conservative conference in Manchester. Telling the event that he had coined the “science superpower” phrase often used by the Conservative government, Mr Freeman said there was an “unbelievable wall of money” potentially coming towards UK science.

There is “a global appetite for the very science research, technology and innovation this country has”, he continued. “Thank goodness; it’s given us a chance to break out of the broken cycle of boom-and-bust economics, overdependence on the City selling derivatives and a trickledown model of growth that hasn’t worked very well.”

There was now “an opportunity, given the pace of development of new technologies and new industries, to really modernise our economic model fast and drive levelling up and put this country back on the path to prosperity”, he told the event on innovation across the UK, hosted by the Centre for Cities.

In an apparent reference to the political turmoil following the Brexit vote, Mr Freeman, who backed Remain in the referendum, said: “I genuinely believe if we get this right we unlock a 50-year cycle: we’ll be telling our grandchildren you had to be there for a terrible 12 years of just turbulent political economy…then we got back to doing what we do really well, which is science and technology, research, innovation and engineering – we solved global challenges, attracted billions of investment and exported around the world.”

He also told the event: “If we’re just going to rely on the world-class golden triangle of London-Cambridge-Oxford…we will fail because it is constrained; Cambridge is already struggling to breathe.”

Highlighting the strength of science and technology clusters around the country, he said: “We need to think much more in government about that’s how you grow the innovation economy; it’s growing these [regional] clusters.”

Meanwhile, Lord Willetts, the Conservative former universities and science minister, speaking at the same fringe meeting and another hosted by the Onward thinktank and UCL, reiterated his warning that Conservative government policy to freeze the tuition fee cap in England at £9,250 was having a negative impact on UK science.

“I have to say that the freeze in student fees is having a big impact on what universities do,” he told the Onward and UCL event on the UK’s goal to be a “scientific industrial powerhouse”.

“In the old days”, domestic fee income was “used to help fund research”, given that research funding does not cover the full economic cost of research, said Lord Willetts.

He added: “The decade-long freeze in fees means that the fee no longer covers the cost of educating a student; means that overseas student income is now diverted to subsidising the education of English students.

“And there is a cut in R&D resource available in universities as a result. And as we’ve got two separate departments [responsible for universities], essentially the DfE [Department for Education] is cutting R&D spending because that’s in DSIT [the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology].

“That is a very perverse situation we’ve got ourselves into.”

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