UK’s ‘science superpower’ dreams need cash, Royal Society chief warns
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LONDON — Boris Johnson must make sure his spending decisions match his ambition to make post-Brexit Britain a global science superpower, the Royal Society president said.
Adrian Smith, a statistician and former government official who took over the reins of the U.K.’s national scientific academy in November, called on the British prime minister to boost spending on research and innovation, and dispel concerns about looming cuts to the science budget.
“There are genuine issues and concerns about the apparent contrast between the aspiration to be a scientific superpower and the commitment of the resource needed to do that,” Smith told POLITICO in his first interview since taking up the role.
Scientists worry that the U.K. government might take up to £2 billion a year from the science budget in order to pay for Britain’s participation in the EU’s research and development program Horizon Europe — the equivalent of a nearly 20 percent cut. Previously, this bill was footed by the Treasury as part of Britain’s wider contributions to the EU budget.
Meanwhile, research projects involving academics in the U.K. and developing countries have seen their funding for 2021-22 slashed by 70 percent in comparison with the previous year, after the government announced cuts to its foreign aid spending. Many projects are to be canceled as a result, with some universities left footing the bill for financial commitments they have already made.
This is particularly painful for the sector, Smith said. “If you suddenly have to stop something that you were planning to do you will get a reputation for untrustworthiness and that’s not a good place to be,” he warned. “There’s a danger that this [decision] has undermined trust and again it is incompatible with the narrative of building a Global Britain that is a science superpower.”
Johnson has committed to increasing Britain’s R&D spending from 1.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) last year to 2.4 percent by 2027, bringing it in line with the OECD average.
But this pledge is at risk of being watered down by the COVID pandemic’s impact on GDP. Scientists also point to the gap between Britain’s aim and the research powerhouses Johnson wants to emulate. Israel, for example, boosted its R&D spending to 4.9 percent of GDP.
“If we were targeting being somewhere near the OECD average and that average moves up, we probably ought to be thinking about moving that 2.4 percent aspiration to let’s say 3 percent,” Smith said.
A spokesperson for the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department said the government will set out R&D allocations for 2021-22 shortly, and reiterated that the cut to overseas aid is temporary but was necessary due to the economic impact of the pandemic. “The U.K. remains a world-leading aid donor,” a spokesperson said. “This year alone, we will spend more than £10 billion to address poverty, tackle climate change, fight COVID and improve global health.”
In the wake of the Brexit referendum, research consortia applying for EU funding were less keen to get British partners in the team and give them leading roles. “We can’t ignore the fact that quite a lot of relationships have been damaged over the past few years,” he said.
Smith said the world’s biggest challenges, including tackling climate change and COVID-19, can’t be solved without involving China, so cooperation in those areas is likely to continue. Individual scientists and institutions will also fight to keep their ties even if their governments do not. But some fields with a national security component, like quantum technology and artificial intelligence, are likely to stay off-limits.
“We can’t get away from the fact that there are genuine, geopolitical differences and conflicts, and that governments need to balance … security against prosperity and other parameters,” Smith said. “I regret the direction of travel into being more nationalistic, but we simply have to understand that there’s a wider issue.”
Smith is a familiar name in British science with a reputation for speaking his mind. As director general for knowledge and innovation at the business department between 2008 and 2012, he was seen as the guardian of the U.K.’s science budget during the financial crisis. He was knighted in 2011.
He went on to run the University of London, Britain’s second largest university by total enrollment. For the last three years, Smith has been the chief executive of the Alan Turing Institute, the national center for artificial intelligence.
He learnt basic maths from his sick grandfather, who he visited frequently before reaching school age. At 74, Smith keeps his mind sharp playing online chess at bedtime. And despite what Google might suggest when you type his name, he is neither the guitarist of the heavy metal band Iron Maiden nor the three times winner of the U.K.’s Strongest Man competition. But there is one award Smith has won three times: the Guy Medal, in recognition of his contribution to probability statistics — a field he describes as “a wonderful bridge to everything in the world.”
“If you’re a statistician you’ve kind of have a right to poke your finger into everybody’s business,” he said. “It’s the numbers that give us the understanding. It’s the numbers that drives the policy.”
Ministers have repeatedly sought his advice, despite reluctance among some senior Conservatives who felt he was too close to Labour. Smith has given the government recommendations on how to improve the teaching of maths at English schools; the compilation and presentation of crime statistics, and how to replace EU funding for science in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Smith also pokes fun at his own institution. He explains that his election as Royal Society president in May wasn’t a contest, as he was the sole candidate put forward by the fellowship, a tradition that dates back centuries. “It is a North Korean election. So I didn’t win. It’s the way it works.”
Fixing the world’s problems
Shortly after taking over the Royal Society presidency, Smith called his counterparts in the national academies of the other G7 advanced economies. Britain’s hosting of the G7 summit in June offered the chance to make progress in tackling some of the world’s most urgent problems: climate change; biodiversity loss; and the lack of proper data mechanisms for monitoring pandemics.
On Wednesday, the combined national academies issued joint recommendations, will call for a climate technology roadmap to reach net zero-carbon emissions by 2050. The roadmap should spell out technology currently available, tech that will need to be scaled up, and any gaps in knowledge, including how to power planes without fossil fuels.
“The role of the Royal Society and the academies is to provide absolute clarity to governments about what can be done if we invest,” Smith said. “Our job is to produce the roadmap and the options, and some of those options will have to be tensioned against others, in terms of costs and effectiveness.”
Despite the Johnson government’s “genuine commitment” to the net-zero target, progress may be slowed by the scale of the challenge, which involves science, money and large-scale behavioral change, Smith said. Take the need to replace Britain’s traditional central heating gas boilers, for example.
“We are going to need a huge army of technicians to come in and remove them, and I don’t think we’ve thought properly yet where are we going to put these millions of boilers that we are removing,” Smith added. “There’s a lot of practical stuff along the way.”
He reminded scientists, ministers and civil servants to be humble amid uncertainty, and despite successes like Britain’s fast vaccine rollout: “We mustn’t get too triumphant.”
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