New cabinet, new spending review and a new approach to science communications
In the aftermath of the Ministerial reshuffle and in the run up to the Comprehensive Spending Review, April Six convened a panel-led discussion on ‘Navigating the role of Government in Science’ as part of our ongoing Science Futures event series.
Ian Taylor chaired the event, and was joined by leading contributors Professor Graeme Reid (Chair of Science and Research Policy, UCL), Jeremy Millard (Iridium Corporate Finance) and our own Ellie Dobson (Director – Science, Engineering & Innovation, April Six).
Government has set in place its vaulting ambition of the UK as a leading ‘scientific superpower’, a totemic phrase consistently weaved into latest statements of Ministerial speeches and departmental strategies. And understanding the context as to how Government may deliver on this goal and sector visions was the common focus.
Approaching the CSR
In a turbulent political age, the build-up to the Comprehensive Spending Review (October 27th) – the first multiyear review since 2015 – has been buffeted by a Ministerial reshuffle (including new appointments at BEIS), a new CEO of UKRI, the new Innovation Strategy, a multitude of new science reviews and strategies underway (including Nurse 2.0), and, of course, the dark picture of post-pandemic finances confronting HM Treasury (which may be why BEIS appears to be backing away from its commitment to £22 billion R&D spend by 2024.
Professor Reid framed the three fundamental roles of government on science – as a funder of UK science, as a leader – especially on policy – and as a user purchasing and deploying innovations, particularly over the last six months and at the benefit of the research sector. The role of Government as leader is important, both in setting the the big ‘superpower’ vision, but also – increasingly – in the culture and accesibility of the research community. The science behind UK policy does not just come from universities and businesses, but also the Government’s research institutions (defence and health).
For all the vision, it is delivery and clarity of support for innovative companies at early Technology Readiness Levels which can have some of the biggest returns for UK plc over the long term. Jeremy Millard spoke from his broad experience in working with these companies, and the complexities of a oft-changing jigsaw of support mechanisms – including R&D tax credits and the new UKRI structure – as managing the sporadic, unpredictable interest of Government in different research areas and technologies.
Ian Taylor noted the importance of stimulating investment by the private sector as currently that represents over half of the 1.7% of UK GDP current spend on R&D intensity. The UK Government has set an ambition for the UK to increase its total R&D expenditure to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, and 3% in the longer term.
The value of effective comms
Ellie Dobson highlighted that recently Government has also taken on a more significant role as a communicator of science, particularly in relation to the pandemic and increasingly with regard to climate change. During this historic period, with more interest than ever in science communication, the link between research and our lives has never been more clear. Therefore, beyond its contribution to economic growth, the national position on science is now a saliant factor in securing the trust of the electorate in the sums invested and the dividends attained.
As such, any organisation that can feed a “winning at science” position will be attractive to government; linking any communications to overarching national ambitions, while embodying credibility and clarity of message.
As a consequence of the pandemic public interest in science higher than ever, whilst public finances are much more constrained than they would otherwise have been. Investment allocated into R&D – indeed all spending – faces great scrutiny. This tension means organisations need to communicate their innovations, opinions and successes in a way which is credible and compelling to both Government and the public, without recourse to hype or overclaim.
At April Six, our experience shows time and again that the most effective campaigns integrate a blend of PR, marketing and direct public affairs approaches. With consistency of message across all channels, organisations need to be able to speak to the Government as a leader, funder, user and communicator of science. Indirectly, simultaneously inspiring the public and creating opportunities with key stakeholders and subject matter influencers will all serve to reinforce the position of value and credibility.
As the debate opened up, a range of topics were covered included public science budgets increasing in parallel growing central government control over research priorities communications, Dasgupta review published earlier this year on the on the Economics of Biodiversity; the relationship between the devolved governments and UK Government on research; the role of the National Science and Council (NSTC); and the role of science societies and organisations.
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