Science Superpower: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly 

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How do we rank the government’s science vision and where does it go next? PPP Partnership Manager Willy Morris provides something of a report card on the UK’s progress as a science superpower.  


In a time of significant political upheaval in the UK, there has been one surprisingly steady theme from the government, regardless of the occupant of 10 Downing Street: turning the UK into a ‘science superpower’.  

In March 2021, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out the science superpower vision. While we don’t have much insight as to what his successor would have done with the vision, former PM Liz Truss’s “unashamedly pro-growth” government would have surely been supportive of efforts in the highly economically productive, and valuable, science sectors. The current PM, Rishi Sunak, has also committed himself to the science superpower vision, even going so far as to restructure the government so as to put science and tech at the forefront of Britain’s future economic growth. And Sir Kier Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, has set out Labour’s own commitment to the sciences as a pillar of future economic growth.  

But even as the governmental rhetoric, and now structure, appear science-friendly, there are cracks forming in the UK’s scientific bedrock. Many of these cracks come from deliberate policy decisions made by the cadre of PMs and their Ministers that have assumed office over the past several years.  

How do we rank the government’s science vision and where does it go next? What follows is something of a report card on the UK’s progress as a science superpower.  


It’s easy to criticise, but let’s give credit where it’s due. The government’s continued efforts in genomics deserve praise. The UK may well be home to the most advanced genomics healthcare system in the world, with genomics rapidly becoming a routine part of NHS care. The most recent injection of £175 million for increased newborn screening, genomic cancer screening, and health inequalities reduction only bolsters the UK’s place a global leader in genomics.  


The PM’s recent decision to reorganise the government, thereby creating the new Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology (DSIT), among other departments, is overall a good decision. DSIT Minister Michelle Donelan will be the first secretary of state focused on science since 1994. 

Though it may take many months for the departmental machinery to get up to speed, bringing the government’s science and tech initiatives under one roof is a good thing. At PPP, we often hear in our roundtables that government initiatives become spread too thin across multiple departments, ensuring that no one is really in charge, so nothing really gets done. In fact, both major political parties are now putting science, tech, and innovation at the heart of their economic growth plans, and DSIT offers a more targeted mechanism through which to channel those plans.  

The reason this isn’t quite an “A” is because reorganisations of this size take a long time to be implemented and it’s yet to be seen how effective DSIT will really be.  


Following on from the creation of DSIT, the government has announced its new Science and Technology Framework, and an associated £500 million in existing and new funding. This funding will be channelled into 10 broad goals/missions. 

In theory, the idea and framework are great, but the funding level leaves a lot to be desired.. £500 million is simply not enough money to even make a dent in the global race to capture the future of science and technology. To compete against the US, EU, and China – not to mention Taiwan, Australia, Israel, Canada and other highly developed nations – funding is going to need to increase by orders of magnitude.  


Horizons Europe 

For now, the uncertainty of the UK’s position in Horizon Europe will sit at the very average “C”, though it could easily skyrocket to an “A+” or sink to an “F” in the coming weeks. Following the recently agreed Windsor Framework, it appeared that the UK was headed back into the scheme, only for the PM to hit pause on that idea. Somewhat confoundingly, the UK’s “Plan B” is to set up a global science collaboration, rather than re-join Horizon, which is itself a global science collaboration that already exists, and already includes 44 member states. There’s virtual unanimity among the UKs science community that re-joining Horizon Europe is the best option. 


The Voluntary Scheme for Branded Medicines Pricing and Access (VPAS) is another issue that could move up or down a few grades depending on what happens in the coming months. VPAS is the scheme that attempts to balance patients’ access to medicines, innovation in the life sciences, and the NHS’s annual medicines bill. Two drug makers have already exited the voluntary agreement for what many in the biopharma industry regard as a punitively high rebate rate on some pharma revenues of 26.5 per cent. The UK’s own AstraZeneca has pulled investment on a $360m manufacturing plant in England due in part to this outsized rebate rate. VPAS is up for renegotiation this year, and the public and private sector alike will be watching closely to see how things pan out.   

R&D Tax Credit for SMEs 

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has just submitted some last-minute extra credit on R&D tax credits, and I will reward him for his efforts. Initially, I had given the government an “F” for the vexing decision to cut the R&D tax credit for SMEs in the 2022 Autumn statement. Doing so ran entirely counter to the government’s goal of making the UK the world’s most attractive place to start and grow a business.  

The updated tax credit – a partial reversal of the previously ill-advised cut, though not a full U-turn – is welcome news for SMEs, even if the move leaves a little more to be desired. Ministers would do well to read this recent report from IQVIA, which found that emerging biopharma companies are responsible for a whopping 65 per cent in the R&D pipeline. SMEs are the lifeblood of innovation, particularly in the sciences. Credit goes to Mr Hunt for recognising his error and taking heed of genuine criticism, but not fully restoring the R&D tax credit still leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth. 


The government’s handling of the raft of strikes and industrial action in the healthcare sector is creating a significant drag on the system. The government has sought to wait things out, but as time goes on, more and more groups are choosing to strike. It’s worth mentioning that in the background of these strikes, the NHS has some 133,000+ vacancies. It’s hard to imagine that very public pay disputes are good for recruitment. 

The government is also in the tricky position of touting the UK as a scientific hub, while battling the workers implementing some of that science in a protracted pay dispute.  


Lastly, while not yet official government policy, it has been reported that the government is considering revising several rules on student visas. The changes may limit the time in which recent graduates can stay and work in the UK upon graduation. Other changes would limit the number of dependents, such as children, that international students can bring with them while they are studying.  

As one source in the article put it, the student visa rules would amount to “economic self-harm.” These changes make even less sense given that the government recognises there is a skills gap shortage in the biopharma industry.  

Final Grade: C-

The ultimate aims of the science superpower vision are entirely logical and praiseworthy. Globally, the value of the tech and pharma sectors, respectively, are in the trillions of dollars. The sciences are also enormously productive, and enable us to live easier, healthier, lives than any other generation before. Plus, the UK is home to some of the world’s best, most innovative universities in the world.  

Unfortunately, the current political and policy landscape in the UK is just not conducive to genuinely building a science superpower. Sure, there are highlights such as genomics, but the uncertainty around things like Horizon Europe and VPAS, and the poor handling of healthcare strikes and the reduction of the SME R&D tax credit show that rhetoric and action are far from aligned.