The Week

The Week 10 March 2023

James Sweetland
Senior Researcher

Another week, another endless stream of Matt Hancock WhatsApp stories... For readers who've had enough of the former Health Secretary, we'll take you through the more substantive events of the week.

Monday saw publication of the Government’s new ‘UK Science and Technology Framework’, from the newly-formed Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT). The framework’s ambition — “to cement the UK’s place as a global science and technology superpower by 2030” — is pretty uncontroversial and even formed part of Sunak’s pitch for the Conservative leadership back in August 2022.

So, what’s in this framework? It sets out five “critical technologies” the Government wants to prioritise: AI, engineering biology, future telecoms, semiconductors, and quantum technology. Each critical technology, in turn, will soon get a cross-government action plan from DSIT. On the face of it, this is all pretty sensible. Focusing on a few areas of competitive advantage is better than a scattergun approach: it’s all too easy to argue for the UK to be a science superpower while avoiding any specifics. And efforts to work across government — a perennial Whitehall failing — are welcome too. But, given that breaking down departmental siloes is often promised and rarely delivered, we wait to see how these plans will actually work.

The extra spending is a little more modest. The £117 million for new AI-focused PhDs had already been announced, while £250 million for “technology missions” in AI, quantum and engineering biology is unlikely to be truly game-changing. But there is interesting stuff buried elsewhere. A pilot for a new UKRI-led “data research cloud” could be one way to pull in scientific knowledge from across different organisations. Plans for a new “Exascale supercomputer facility” are equally exciting, though “plans” is somewhat vague... And the new “pro-innovation” White Paper on AI regulation (set for early 2023) seems especially well-timed with ChatGPT leading (and writing?) the headlines. There’s lots to unpack here – but broadly, it's a thumbs up from Reform.

There’s more mixed news on scientific collaboration with Europe. Alongside the new framework, the Government has extended the Horizon Europe Guarantee — which provides stopgap funding for researchers while the UK seeks to re-join the EU's Horizon scheme — until June 2023. An extension is obviously positive, but getting back into Horizon — something Ursula von der Leyen mentioned in her press conference with the PM last week — is the real goal. The message from the scientific community is pretty clear on this. The President of the Royal Society has called the extension “yet another sticking plaster, when the ultimate goal needs to be speedy association”, while Sir Paul Nurse, author of the Government’s independent review on UK R&D, has argued that "domestic alternatives will not be able to reproduce its [Horizon’s] advantages."

Here's what we've been reading this week...

First, as Civil Service World reported, the Cabinet Office has been awarded money for an efficiency scheme that they predict could save £1 billion across government. The savings will be made through digitisation to reduce paper costs, and increasing automated processes. The money has been granted by the Evaluation Task Force’s Accelerator Fund, a joint Cabinet and Treasury unit, which aims to help departments prioritise evaluation. As the write-up of our event with Chief Secretary to the Treasury John Glen details, even small upfront investments in digital capability can unlock important savings in public service delivery – if targeted effectively. Of course, the success of this scheme remains to be seen, but it could be a much-needed step towards improving efficiency across government.

Secondly, a (very) long read on Operation Soteria — the vast Home Office project examining the police response to rape and sexual assault. It highlights the long history of resistance to reform, especially in the Met: the 2005 internal report that was "watered down" by the public affairs department, the senior officer who described the academic lead for Soteria as a "critical incident". But Soteria’s attempt to shift investigations to focus on suspects (not victims) is welcome, if maddeningly overdue. The new tactics the article describes also interested Reform: new “disruption officers” who target sexual offenders like organised criminals are a novel idea, similar to the Met’s plans to use behavioural data to identify serial abusers. Given the long track record of failure in tackling this problem, fresh approaches like this are worth exploring.

Finally, this week the NHS published the results of its annual staff survey. Over 630,000 staff (half the total workforce) responded to the survey, so it gives us a good temperature check on how those working in the NHS are feeling. The top line indicators don’t make for happy reading across the board — staff are growing more dissatisfied with care quality in their organisation, their level of pay, and work conditions. Alarmingly, the number of staff who feel enthusiastic about their job has declined by 12 per cent since pre-pandemic. Dig below the national level, however, and there are high levels of variation between staff satisfaction in different trusts and integrated care systems.