Money is short. Across the board, government departments are under extreme pressure to spend less, and the new Business Secretary, Grant Shapps, finds himself in a difficult situation. In recent months his department has been bombarded with requests for funding from a range of industrial companies, most of which can make a plausible case for support.
Andy Street, the West Midlands mayor, is urging the government to help fund the construction of a battery plant to serve the local auto industry. Two big steel makers have asked for aid to finance the replacement of their blast furnaces. The leading manufacturer of green hydrogen has warned that the UK will fall behind in this technology unless the government matches the support that other countries are providing. These are just three of the many supplicants who are banging on Shapps’s door.
In some cases, the requests are linked to a government-set objective – in particular, the need to reduce carbon emissions – which ministers evidently believe cannot be achieved by the private sector acting alone. But that does not make it any easier for the business secretary to choose between different applicants, while also satisfying himself that the favoured projects cannot be financed from commercial sources.
The immediate pressures on Shapps stem from the urgent need to put the nation’s finances in order, but they illustrate a wider problem. Most governments want to support technologies which they regard as important, perhaps even critical, to their country’s future. But how important does a technology need to be to justify government support? What makes one technology more critical than another?
In 1990 the US Congress passed the National Defence Authorisation Act, which defined critical technologies as those that are essential “to further the long-term national security or economic prosperity of the US”. But this definition is too general to be of much help to policy makers. It also leaves out other objectives – for example, protecting the nation’s health – which are no less critical than national security.
In the US, according to Erica Fuchs, a leading expert on science policy, there is no agreement on what makes a technology critical, even less on how the extent of criticality should be measured; the government lacks the capacity to answer these questions. What is needed, she suggests, is the creation of a monitoring group at the Federal level, made up of experts from government, industry and academia, which would undertake what she calls critical technology analysis, identifying missions that go beyond the purview of any individual agency.
Some might think the management of UK technology policy is confusing enough as it is, without the need for another committee. When Boris Johnson was Prime Minister, he set up the National Council for Science and Technology, a Cabinet-level committee whose remit covers all government departments; it is supported by a new Office for Science and Technology Strategy. Liz Truss planned to abolish the council, but Rishi Sunak has kept it alive, and he will be the chairman.
How the council will interact with the Business Department and with the government’s research funding agency, UK Research and Innovation, is far from clear, but part of its role has been sketched out. The council, according to a paper on government innovation strategy, will determine “a suite of ambitious and inspiring missions”, designed to tackle “big, complex societal challenges”.
We have to be realistic: the UK cannot expect to be a world leader in every technology. Prioritisation is crucial, and the council will need to say why it is giving priority to some technologies and not others. As a starting point, the paper listed seven technology families, including robotics, advanced materials and engineering biology, which might be seen as worthy of government support.
What now has to happen – if the current government sticks to the programme set out last year – is for the council to announce what missions it has chosen and to spell out in some detail the criteria on which its decisions are based.
Short of a total withdrawal from activist industrial policy, which seems improbable under either Conservative or Labour governments (Labour has recently set out its plans in this area, which include the creation of an Industrial Strategy Council), missions in one form or another will remain part of the government’s armoury. The fewer of them there are, the more likely they are to be more successful. We need clear rationale, rather than the product of lobbying by interested parties, or wishful thinking.
Above all, we need to play to our strengths, our industrial capacity and the global opportunity.