Government risks falling behind in technological revolution

Stefano Gortana

7 October 2017

A clear message across multiple sessions at this year’s Conservative Party Conference was that we are in the midst of a technological and digital revolution that will cause massive political, social, cultural, technological and economic disruption, both within the UK and across the globe – not least in the area of healthcare. We cannot predict exactly what this new world will look like, or exactly how fast it is approaching, but it is already clear that the nature of employment, the provision of public services, the role of the individual and even the meaning of work will change.

While parliamentarians and experts agreed that massive changes lie in the not too distant future, the experts showed considerably less confidence that the government is prepared, or even fully understands, the scale of change that lies ahead. There have been positive policy developments but it seems the UK government remains in significant danger of falling behind competitors within and beyond the UK, especially as the Brexit negotiations leave so much still to be decided.

Positive signs for science and technology?

At the relaunch of the Conservative Science and Technology Forum, Science Minister Jo Johnsontold us this government is doing more than any other over the past 40 years to support science and technology. This includes a commitment to raising the percentage of GDP spent on research from 1.7% to 2.4% within ten years. In fact, investment in R&D is already set to increase by £4.7 billion over the period 2017-18 to 2020-21, in addition to a previous commitment of £26 billion from 2016-17 to 2020-21 and reflects a rise of about 20% in total government research and development (R&D) spending, more than any increase in any parliament since 1979’.

In addition to funding, Jo Johnson highlighted the government’s focus on facilitating interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary science and research, pointing to the creation of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and its impressive support staff to oversee spending. Loan schemes for Master’s degrees in science and technology have been so successful the policy will now expand to include doctoral degrees too, and Lord Willets drew attention to a range of success stories, including achievements made at the Francis Crick Institute and through the catapult programme. There was, strikingly, no mention of the short-lived Precision Medicine Catapult, the activities of which (and funding consumed) over two years remain unaccounted for – with no news of precision medicine focused work promised from the Medicines Discovery Catapult.

Lord Willets added encouragingly that there is finally a clear understanding growing in parliament that technology is not static, but will change even in the short term and this should therefore factor more heavily into policy-making considerations. While tangible solutions were in short supply, he repeated the call to improve the provision of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills.

Policy is failing to keep pace

A persistent criticism of the Conservative party, and particularly the speeches made at this conference, has been the tendency for the party to be too reactive. Commentators argue that, rather than proactively developing policies that address contemporary issues in order to offer a forward-thinking and unifying vision for the future, the current government has tended to react too slowly to key issues (and Labour proposals). This ‘conservative’ approach to policy-making has been evident in the government’s approach to science and technology, though arguably to a lesser extent than other sectors, and is said to significantly threaten the UK’s ability to meet the rapidly emerging challenges of the technological revolution.

Conference attendees raised concerns over a range of issues to which the government has been too slow to react, such as in addressing the digital skills gap and reforming the education of science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) related subjects; the need for more computer programming courses received particularly vocal support. Furthermore, not only do IT standards lag behind but also crucial data (not least healthcare data) is still stuck in separate silos without interoperable standards, undermining effective data-sharing.

Admittedly, the ambitious Industrial Strategy has attracted broad support across diverse sectors and industries. But even access to reliable broadband remains an issue in the UK, one given voice by conference attendees, who repeatedly expressed frustration at their inability to consistently access the internet even in central Manchester. There is also a fear that Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Greg Clark may get a ‘deal’ for industry that is too broad, and does not address key issues of the future, particularly the capacity to handle ‘Big Data‘, in sufficient detail.

After the results of the snap election and facing the evolution of the Labour party, the Conservative party is certainly having a crisis of identity. It’s not that there are no ideas in the party, but the question becomes whether the government can evolve and adapt in time to capitalise on Brexit and compete effectively on a global stage as the fourth industrial revolution takes shape. This  year’s conference suggests concerns about the future of this Conservative government, and the UK, are justified.

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