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Tony Blair and Stripe founder plan to make UK a 'science superpower'

·Business Reporter, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
Former British prime minister Tony Blair. Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Former British prime minister Tony Blair. Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Former prime minister Tony Blair and Patrick Collison, founder of global payments company Stripe, have endorsed a radical plan to make the UK a “science superpower”.

In a new report released on Friday, the Entrepreneurs Network and the Tony Blair Institute have set out 10 ideas required for Britain to tackle stagnating productivity and become world-leading in science.

The report, The Way to the Future, brings together entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, historians and policy enthusiasts.

It highlights the requirement to overhaul science funding, build a new world-leading centre for research in fast-developing fields, and recruit young scientific talent from across the world with generous scholarships.

One essay in the collection said that Britain needed to adopt a proactive approach to attracting the best and the brightest from around the globe. It argued that the UK needed to go further than simply removing barriers in the visa system, and instead actively seek out promising young talent with scholarships to study at universities and support ground-breaking research.

“Just as Premier League clubs invest heavily in scouting the next Neymar or Messi from South America, the UK should do the same in terms of finding the next Demis Hassabis or Katalin Karikó,” Sam Dumitriu, research director at The Entrepreneurs Network and one of the report’s authors, said.

Read more: Oxford University looking to raise £500m for new Pandemic Sciences Centre

One of the more unorthodox suggestions was to resurrect the Great Exhibitions of the Victorian era. Historian Anton Howes, who also called for a new Elizabethan order of merit for inventors, argued that doing so would raise the status of invention.

“The aim would be to excite the public about cutting-edge technologies like augmented reality and drone delivery, while British businesses would see demonstrations of what new technology they need to adopt, and budding young entrepreneurs would use this as an opportunity to network and be inspired,” the essay said.

However, the authors cautioned that it was not enough for Britain to invent the latest technology, and that we also need to become a nation of early adopters.

The report argues for the need to push regulators to proactively remove barriers to new emerging technologies such as drones, lab-grown meat, and gene-editing.

Philip Salter, Founder of The Entrepreneurs Network says: “Too often when talking about cutting-edge technology, most of the attention is focused on developing it within the UK.

"For people to really feel the benefits of new technology, they need to be able to buy it at home too. This is where the idea for Testbed Nation comes from – we want British people to be the first to order a drone-delivered lab-grown beef burger and take a self-driving car on their daily commute.”

Watch: Could lab-grown meat help tackle climate change?

Other essays in the collection came from companies such as Omics UK, which argued that Britain should set up a centre for research in "multi-omics" which would make discoveries about the genome, biomolecules, cellular processes and the broader environment. Another was from Digital State who discussed the need for the government to consolidate disparate data sets it holds on the people to make public services smarter.

“The 21st century technology revolution is transformative, extraordinary in its consequences and impact and will and should dominate our thinking in the years to come,” Blair said.

“No one doubts technology can also have negative effects. But the critical point is that for good or ill, it is changing the world. This is the real world event that is happening in our time, to our people and the world over. The challenge for politics is to understand it, master it, and harness it for good.”

Read more: Johnson plans UK science superpower with $21bn R&D spend

Blair added: “Too often policymakers either ignore its importance or focus on questions like those to do with privacy which are important but limited; when the real debate should be around how we use technology to usher in a new advance of humankind."

It comes as business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng prepares to release the government’s Innovation Strategy. Ministers are drawing up plans for new science-focused schools, as well as billions of pounds in research and development spending.

It will identify seven “families” of innovation that will take priority in the UK, including quantum, advanced materials, life sciences, genomics, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

He is also set to confirm plans to increase annual state investment in R&D to £22bn ($30bn).

Watch: Boris Johnson sets out plan to make UK ‘science superpower'