UK ‘science superpower’ status to bring ‘strategic advantage’

UK’s overhaul of defence and foreign policy sees science as ‘arena of systemic competition’

March 16, 2021
UK houses of parliament
Source: iStock

The UK’s defence and foreign policy overhaul describes science as a means to sustain global “strategic advantage” and as “an arena of systemic competition”, putting the aim of being a “science and tech superpower” at the heart of the nation’s future objectives overseas.

The integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy aims to set a post-Brexit path for the UK, saying it should refocus its foreign policy towards countries such as India, Japan and Australia in the “Indo-Pacific” region.

“We will be recognised as a science and tech superpower, remaining at least third in the world in relevant performance measures for scientific research and innovation, and having established a leading edge in critical areas such as artificial intelligence,” says the document, published on 16 March.

And it talks about ensuring “science and technology (S&T) is elevated to the highest importance as a component of national security, with a particular emphasis on growing our cyber power”.

“Sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology” is one of four objectives set in the document, which it says will be “essential in gaining economic, political and security advantages in the coming decade and in shaping international norms in collaboration with allies and partners”.

“As competition grows between states, S&T will also increase in importance as an arena of systemic competition. In the years ahead, countries which establish a leading role in critical and emerging technologies will be at the forefront of global leadership,” the document says.

Growing the UK’s “science and technology power in pursuit of strategic advantage” will require “a whole-of-UK effort, in which the government’s primary role is to create the enabling environment for a thriving S&T ecosystem of scientists, researchers, inventors and innovators, across academia, the private sector, regulators and standards bodies, working alongside the manufacturing base to take innovations through to markets”.

The plan highlights existing government commitments to increase research spending and create a new research funding agency for high-risk, high-reward projects.

But it also refers to establishing new science and technology “horizon-scanning, assessment and policy capabilities within government, to anticipate and assess priorities as we pursue strategic advantage”. 

Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, said the “notion that the UK is seeking to compensate for lack of sheer scale in terms of force size through superior technology is a long-standing theme in UK defence policy. But obviously the breadth of the review, covering security, trade, soft power and other forms of international relations, is interesting, as is the widening of the concept of technological leadership to encompass things like ‘cyber’ and ‘tech’ (whatever exactly they are).”

However, the “document only partially convinces me that there may be joined-up thinking going on here”, Dr Flanagan continued.

The review mentions “the importance of science and technology collaboration” but also talks about “technological leadership in zero-sum competition, nationalistic terms – as if we can be completely self-sufficient in the necessary technologies to compete in military, security, cyber, etc, terms”, he observed. And “realistically, in the near term, China will account for an ever larger share of the global science and technology enterprise, so you have to work out how you are going to engage with that”, he added.

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