World-leading? Britain’s science sector has some way to go

The writer is a science commentator

The assertion that the UK is world-beating at science and technology is often repeated but rarely questioned. The government boasts of being a “global leader”; UK Research and Innovation, the national funding agency, talks of the “UK’s global leadership in transformative technologies”.

The reality may be less rosy, according to provocative new analysis by science policy academics. Their conclusion — that the UK is good, but not outstanding, in priority areas of science and technology — challenges the prevailing narrative of a plucky nation with brainy ideas falling just shy when it comes to spinning them into major innovations. Rather, the UK’s reputation is inflated by historic successes including Nobel Prizes, universities that score highly in global rankings and an over-dependence on wildly successful outliers, including the London-based AI company DeepMind.

The reality check matters: British science is undergoing a major reset, prompted by factors including Brexit and declining productivity. The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology was created last month; Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, has published his long-awaited review of the UK’s research and innovation landscape. The premise that British science is good but not exceptional strengthens the case for resuming post-Brexit ties with Horizon, the EU’s research programme.

The new research was carried out by Professor Paul Nightingale, from the science policy research unit at Sussex university, and James Phillips, an honorary senior research fellow in science policy at UCL and a former special adviser to the prime minister. Their paper, which has been published online but not peer-reviewed, begins with one crucial statistic underlying the “world-leading” claim: if measured by authorship, the UK accounts for about 13 per cent of the top 1 per cent of the most highly cited work across all research fields.

A closer look at cutting-edge research in prized areas, such as artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, is revealing. The UK’s share of citations in the top 100 recent AI papers runs at a respectable 7.8 per cent overall — but, once DeepMind is removed, it drops to 1.9 per cent. “If you take DeepMind out of the equation, then UK performance in AI is extremely weak,” Nightingale says. “To have a single point of failure is extremely concerning.”

Synthetic biology in the UK is similarly monopolised by the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology at Cambridge university. Three US institutions, including MIT, individually exceed the UK’s entire top-tier “synbio” output. The quantum technologies field, another government priority, is due to receive £2.5bn in today’s Budget — but, the paper argues, the country last merited the title of “quantum superpower” between 2003 and 2007, when it came second in contributions to top-cited papers. It now ranks fifth. The UK is getting “clobbered” by the US and China, says Nightingale, and being outshone by smaller nations such as Singapore, Switzerland and Denmark.

Richard Jones, professor of materials physics and innovation policy at Manchester university, welcomes the paper’s corrective message, which suggests that “rather than being world-leading, we do quite well for a country of our size and resources”. But, he adds, it undervalues the UK’s broad research base: “You don’t need to invent everything in order to benefit from it.”

Nightingale and Phillips point to a trajectory of gradual national decline. That echoes Nurse’s view of “longstanding and serious” issues, including under-investment. While the UK as a whole spends around the 2019 OECD average of 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development, the direct government contribution to domestic R&D is less than 0.5 per cent, placing it 27th among 36 OECD countries, and behind South Korea, Germany and the US. Nurse’s recommendations include: more spending; a less volatile policy environment attractive to investors; a simplified, less bureaucratic landscape; and strong international collaboration.

The question is whether the review, as well as government thinking, is sufficiently strategic or disruptive. Nightingale complains that the UK is still “stuck in a 1950s system of ‘let’s give money to some good chaps and let them get on with it’”, beset by opaque decision-making.

The chaps and chapesses are indeed doing good work, and will want to stay in Horizon to keep up the momentum. But world-leading? There is some way to go before UK science can truly claim a spot on the podium.

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