Science innovation must be at the heart of government action

As published in The Times commentary section on 5 July - by Ed Bussey, CEO, Oxford Science Enterprises.

The commercialisation of science and deep tech research, where British universities lead the world, should be at the top of the priority list for the incoming government.

The opportunity is huge; if the UK is going to create its first £1tn company, it is likely to emerge from the deep tech ecosystems around one of our leading universities. But it’s time-limited, because the world’s biggest economies, including the US and China, have already made their move.

The new government must back companies developing specific pioneering technologies, such as quantum computing, where the UK has a genuine first-mover advantage and throw its full weight behind them.

There are three critical issues the new government can address to ensure that our best tech and science companies are not only created and scaled in the UK but that they choose to stay here too; these are procurement, investment and talent.

It’s no secret that working with government is too slow and too risky. The Covid-19 pandemic proved, however, that government procurement can be collapsed into much shorter timelines. Within months, an Oxford University spin-out backed by OSE, Vaccitech, co-created a vaccine alongside AstraZeneca and the university, changing the tide of the global pandemic.

Government procurement must be able to match the pace of industry to scale pioneering companies, not five years in the future, but right now.

Second, the next government must be our investment champion abroad. A shortage of scale-up capital in the UK prevents the realisation of the next Google or Nvidia in Britain, despite having the makings of these companies here.

More foreign investment is needed to provide the foundation for productivity in the future. Greater levels of capital investment will mean more UK businesses can invest in their cutting-edge science, and scale at a global level from home rather than turning to the capital rich US.

However, accelerating procurement and incentivising capital inflows only works if we have the talent in the UK to drive innovation.

Only a small number of experts globally have the experience needed to accelerate the growth of these companies. We need to fast track that talent into the UK, with visa decisions made in days, not weeks or months and at a competitive cost. No political party is prepared to cut the upfront costs of visas, yet at £20,980, the cost of our five-year global talent visa is many times higher than in competitor countries.

Addressing all three of these issues is well within the reach of the new government. With timely action, the government can put Britain at the forefront of a new age of invention and innovation.

Ed Bussey, CEO of Oxford Science Enterprises