3 Jul 2020

The Government’s R&D Roadmap, published on Wednesday, offers an astute critique of the issues facing the UK’s innovation ecosystem but, if it is to be successful, it will need a driver for the long-haul journey.

Both Brexit and COVID-19, for good reason, have played a significant role in shaping the formation of the R&D Roadmap. Brexit, and the desire to showcase the UK as a global hub for innovation, has compelled the Government to turn rhetoric into policy. The longstanding discourse of the Brexiteer camp that the UK should stand on its own two feet, as a proud and independent nation, was bound to permeate into policy sooner rather than later.

However, this rhetoric is not totally specious. We know that the UK suffers compared to its international competitors in its ability to attract talent, scale up innovations and make research happen outside of the ‘Golden Tringle’ and the R&D Roadmap admits that these are problems the Government will need to tackle. However, more important than the Roadmap itself, will be the driver within Whitehall to steer the UK towards its ambition of becoming “a science superpower”.

COVID-19 too plays a role in understanding this document. As nations have scrambled to find treatments, construct track and trace systems and develop vaccines, the focus is on R&D. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen Government’s across the globe pour money into a number of national and international initiatives to help find solutions. Those nations who get there first are set to win big on the international stage. Now more than ever, the focus is on R&D to deliver solutions and this Roadmap is the latest iteration of the Government’s desire to bolster the sector.

The Roadmap shows an intent from the Government to advertise the UK as an attractive location for R&D investment post-Brexit and post-COVID. Attracting investment, retaining talent and maximising the economic, health and societal benefits of R&D will not only help the Government deliver its levelling up agenda but also showcase the fertile R&D landscape in the UK. However, it will be critical that the Roadmap isn’t relegated to the Whitehall library.

Although Dominic Cummings is a vocal advocate for R&D policy, as evidenced by the move to bring the newly established Office for Talent directly into the Number 10 machine, advisors come and go faster than R&D strategies. As in health policy, R&D policy requires long term ambition and implementation which stretches further than five-year election cycles. That is part of the reason why NHS England developed their Long Term Plan; to create a health service that is siloed from party politics. Therefore, for R&D, there will need to be legacy beyond Cummings and this Government to ensure the implementation of this Roadmap and the subsequent comprehensive R&D plan can be successful.

What about life sciences?

For the life sciences industry, there are questions about where they fit into all of this. The Roadmap shows that the Government buys the argument that support for R&D will increase productivity and attract foreign investment, something the sector has been arguing for years, but it lacks the promises needed for the industry to continue to commit to the UK post-Brexit. The Life Sciences Industrial Strategy, which includes a number of key recommendations on R&D, is due for a refresh this year and could help shape further government thinking on R&D.

As one of the most innovative sectors in the UK, it will be important for the life sciences industry to engage with the Government on the Roadmap and the opportunities to do this will be plentiful. According to the document, engagement with businesses will be ongoing throughout the summer via an online survey and Ministerial roundtables. However, it will be necessary for companies to have a clear narrative for how they can support the Government in achieving its ambitions on R&D and what is required of the comprehensive plan to encourage them to invest in the UK.

So where will the R&D Roadmap really take us?

The R&D Roadmap puts a strong stake in the ground and clearly communicates the Government’s appetite for R&D and innovation. It is timely and ambitious, providing necessary assurances to the R&D sector as it faces the dual challenge of COVID-19 and Brexit. However, it is not without its deficiencies and risks. There will be concerns in the industry that this is yet another Government strategy that will gather dust on a shelf in Whitehall. Only this time last year, former Science Minister Chris Skidmore published the International Research and Innovation Strategy, but nothing has yet become of its ambition. The risk is that Brexit and COVID-19 will lay bare the harsh economic realities and questions remain over whether the Prime Minister will be able to steady the ship through stormy waters.  To ensure that the R&D Roadmap supports the sector in where it needs to go, and helps it weather the storm of Brexit and COVID, it must to be followed by a rapid implementation plan that aligns with the Life Science Sector refresh.