Will UK PM’s new science council start ‘picking winners’?

Composite image of UK prime minister Boris Johnson as a bookmaker, illustrating ‘picking winners’

Source: Getty (edited)

With his penchant for headline-grabbing but impractical vanity projects – from the failed Garden Bridge initiative to ideas for a bridge to Northern Ireland or an island airport in the Thames – Boris Johnson is not an obvious choice to chair a council deciding the “strategic direction” of UK science.

After all, the complex architecture of UK research funding – in which research councils distribute grants based on scientific excellence as decided by experts – is there, in part, to stop politicians from being too directive in their aspirations for the national science base. Without it, the theory goes, there is little to stop resources being lavished on pet projects, however crackpot, of ministers’ favourite thinkers – as was seen in the 1930s with Stalin’s backing for scientists who promised to create lemons that could grow in the Arctic.

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So it may be surprising that many senior scientists are broadly happy that a new National Science and Technology Council will be led by the prime minister himself. “Having Boris Johnson as its chair is a very good thing,” said John Womersley, former executive chair of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, who views the Johnson-led panel as a power play by 10 Downing Street to ensure the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, does not block proposed uplifts in science spending, which is due to rise to £22 billion by 2025, as the Treasury seeks to rein in post-Covid spending.

“It would be very hard for the Treasury to disagree with the priorities of this council if it is chaired by the prime minister,” said Professor Womersley, who added that this council’s steering of UK science was a price worth paying if it led to extra cash. “It’s a Faustian bargain – the price of government taking an interest in science is greater interference and direction, but normally this leads to bigger budgets,” he said.

New funds may come with strings attached but could still flow to universities if their research aligns with priorities, added Professor Womersley. That funding was “unlikely to be handed over to research councils to spend as they wish, but it could support the fundamental or applied research done by universities if it supports certain areas”, he added.

The creation of the National Science and Technology Council – which will provide “strategic direction in the use of science and technology as the tools to tackle great societal challenges, level up across the country and boost prosperity around the world” – does, however, raise questions about the purpose of existing advisory panels on science strategy. There is already the near-identically named Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology, co-chaired by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, who will also chair a new Downing Street-based science unit. This is in addition to the board of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the umbrella body for research councils set up in 2018 to coordinate research to ensure it fitted in with economic opportunities – a remit that sounds eerily similar to the new council’s.

Other agencies, including Innovate UK, which will spend about £1.2 billion on science-related innovation in 2021-22, and the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) designed to support “high-risk, high-reward science”, also overlap with the council’s mission, while the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) will shortly publish its Innovation Strategy on how the promised £22 billion will be spent.

“There is a definite proliferation of advisory bodies, which makes decision-making more difficult,” observed Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, who also noted how decision-making has been centralised in Downing Street with Sir Patrick in charge.

“While I’m sure the science minister [Amanda Solloway] will be part of this new council, Sir Patrick is the head of a lot of these organisations.”

Having a former medical professor at UCL and president of R&D at GlaxoSmithKline at the helm should, however, reassure the scientific community, said Professor Westwood. “Boris Johnson deals in trust and loyalty as far as who he listens to – having someone with Patrick’s talents, status and experience in that role is good news for science,” he said.

Others were not so sure. “Boris Johnson surrounds himself with people who do exactly what he says – Vallance has been inside No 10 so long that he is really one of them now,” one scientist told Times Higher Education, adding: “The only thing that this government has done for science is cut half a billion pounds of overseas research projects, so excuse me if I’m still pessimistic about its ‘science superpower’ promises.”

The inclusion of “levelling up” in the new council’s remit also offers a clue into how science funding will be distributed to win votes in the so-called red wall seats of northern England being targeted by the Conservatives, said Diana Beech, a former special adviser to three science ministers who is now chief executive of London Higher.

“Anything that happens in No 10 is about winning hearts and minds, so there will definitely be a list of regions of where [money] will be targeted,” said Dr Beech, who added that the prime minister’s creation of a levelling-up task force last month showed he “is starting to think more strategically about this agenda”. The inclusion of Neil O'Brien, the Conservative MP leading this task force, on the council would give the strongest hint that monies will be earmarked for regions rather than distributed purely on the basis of excellence, she added.

More broadly, the creation of the council and Sir Patrick’s role as national technology adviser has raised the possibility that the government will start investing heavily in fields of research and development-intensive businesses with the potential to deliver strong economic benefits – known as “picking winners”.

“The interventionist instincts of this government show no bounds, so picking winners, in industrial terms, would be entirely in character,” said Professor Westwood.

Having a body in Downing Street able to respond quickly to promising new lines of scientific enquiry that may yield big long-term pay-offs would emulate some of the best decisions of Tony Blair’s first term in office, which saw the Labour prime minister swiftly allocate an extra £252 million to genomics and e-science research in 2000, said Douglas Kell, research chair in systems biology at the University of Liverpool.

That decision to invest early and quickly in a then-unproven technology has been more than vindicated, with the resultant technology now central to drug development and the UK’s pre-eminence in sequencing different strains of coronavirus, explained Professor Kell, who led the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council from 2008 to 2013.

“If we had been forced to wait until the next budget, it would have been too late,” he said.

“Picking winners is sometimes derided but peer review is, in essence, a form of picking winners – sensible government responds to scientific needs and picks winners in terms of areas that need investment,” he said, noting that this approach was repeated in 2013 when the “eight great technologies” championed by then science minister David Willetts managed to squeeze £600 million of new funding from the Treasury while other government departments faced austerity cuts.

But Terence Kealey, former vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, who has published widely on industrial strategy, said the UK’s track record on investing in technology was notoriously poor.

“The conventional wisdom is that Britain neglected science and technology after the Second World War and has always struggled to catch up – it didn’t,” argued Professor Kealey. “In fact, we produced the world’s first commercial computer, nuclear power station and jet airliner, but it was in the US, where the commercial sector led these things, that they were successful,” he said.

The much-cited example of Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to invest in Britain’s emerging computer science industry in the 1980s – seen as a missed opportunity to rival Silicon Valley’s dominance – was misleading, Professor Kealey continued. “The great IT revolution was in software, not hardware, [where the UK was largely focused] and led by people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs,” he said.

“These men could never work for or with civil servants – they needed to be completely free, like artists, to do what they did best.”

The attractive idea that governments should pile into potentially promising technologies and lay long-term bets remained difficult to debunk, maintained Professor Kealey, also a biochemist. Given how specific projects funded by government “often get good results, such as Nasa successfully putting men on the Moon”, there was a temptation to think that approach can be replicated in business, he said.

“If the government pours good scientists into a project, it may go well, but what we don’t see are the projects that would otherwise have flourished under the market had the scientists not been pulled away from them,” he said of the “crowding out” effect.

“Anyone who argues we need government funding of R&D because capital is scarce has not looked at interest rates – money is dirt cheap and industry is desperate for investments that offer any prospect of a return, so good ideas will get funded privately,” he said.

Others disagreed. “Governments should take a broad brush to picking winners – in racing terms, we shouldn’t be betting on individual horses, but it’s entirely appropriate to take an interest in certain horse races,” said Professor Womersley.

Whether Mr Johnson remains the right man for this job, even with the steadying influence of Sir Patrick, will remain the more contentious question, which will only become far more vexed if he fails to deliver in this autumn’s comprehensive review on his ambitious spending agenda.

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