In case you missed it, here is a short summary of Chris Skidmore MP’s speech from the EPC’s Congress 2021 webinar series. A recording of the event is available at Recent events (epc.ac.uk). To read the full text of the speech, please click here.
From an engineering family, Chris personally recognises that “engineering at its essence [is] about problem solving […] the day-to-day reality of making things […] work.” He was also keen to recognise that “the need for a better world” seems more urgent than ever, given current global issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of climate change. Recognising the vital role of research in combatting the pandemic, he called it “our guiding light out of the tunnel.” Obvious examples of this research include vaccination programs and treatments for COVID-19.
However, although we have come a long way thanks to research, future generations are yet to feel the “aftershocks” of the pandemic, both economic and otherwise. As such, the “need for research will always be one long campaign that never ends.”
Crucially, one of the main points of Chris’ talk was that the UK’s current goal to spend 2.4% of its GDP on R&D by 2027 – may not be enough. He believes that at least 3% is needed in order to keep pace with the rest of the world and the “scale of change that is coming” in the next few decades.
If the UK does not hasten its research spending, we will be facing a “widening gap in R&D” as many other major countries already spend a higher percentage of their GDP on research compared to the UK. Acknowledging the commitments of nations such as Germany and South Korea to invest in climate research, Chris called for a “definite timetable” for 3% – and later 3.5%.
One of the “greatest barriers” affecting the ‘levelling up’ of the UK, is a skills deficit and low levels of productivity. No matter how much capital is invested, people are “the lifeblood of R&D”, as they provide the means to produce research and “translate its potential.” The link between research and the skills network that must be created to facilitate its expansion cannot be ignored.
To do so would be a crucial misstep as “those that fail to invest in skills are the same who fail to invest in R&D, for they rely on short-term gains and not realising long-term opportunity.” The UK must invest in both its researchers and their research, and the idea of the UK as a ‘global science superpower’ “must be aligned with the ‘levelling up’ agenda if both are to truly succeed.” It is because of this that Chris has established the Lifelong Education Commission with Res Publica.
Engineering has always played an important role of bringing to life the once impossible. Throughout history, engineers have been able to “transform individual lives by demonstrating how technological change can make people’s lives easier.”
Such a concept is even more important today, given the growing challenges of climate change and the changes needed to achieve net zero. Perhaps we should remember that “we need not reinvent the wheel to move faster towards 2.4% or 3%…we just need to change the tire.”
In the future, maintaining and strengthening the research partnerships the UK has joined will be highly important. Funding for research should be refined, perhaps using Horizon Europe as an example. Ambition will be needed “in spades” to meet the challenges of the future such as climate change and Net Zero – therefore this structure must be reviewed. Chris’ closing message was that “stability, security and sustainability should underpin any research strategy for a better future.”