Science Minister speech at LEAP '24, Riyadh

A keynote speech delivered by Science Minister Andrew Griffith at LEAP '24, in Riyadh

 Andrew Griffith MP

Good afternoon.  It’s a pleasure to be here.

I must start by thanking the patron of this conference and our gracious host, His Excellency Minister AlSwaha, and all of the teams behind this fantastic event.

This is my second visit to the dynamic City of Riyadh in a few months and it is good to be back.

The immense science and innovation ambition of the Kingdom in its Vision 2030 is clear and commendable.

In its four priorities - health and wellbeing, sustainability, energy and economies of the future - Saudi Arabia has shown that it is ready to harness the power of research to tackle some of the greatest shared challenges of our time.  

Projects like NEOM which seeks to harness the power of AI and net zero technologies to establish the most advanced human habitat on Earth  have the potential to drive forward innovation at a scale and pace almost without precedent in human history.

I am here because I believe that Britain has a vital role to play in that story.

With four of the world’s top ten universities, we have one of the most formidable research and innovation bases on the planet.

And according to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, the UK is one of the most innovative economies.

Like Saudi Arabia, we too, are unapologetically ambitious in capitalising on our strengths to grow our economy and improve lives for people in Britain and around the world.

Our Science and Tech Framework sets out our ambition to become a science and technology superpower by 2030, with plans to lead in transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum, and synthetic biology.

But, even though we are competitive, we are clear that no country can become a science and tech superpower in isolation.

Just as the history is of humankind becoming more prosperous, living longer, and building great civilisations through free trade, global innovation is not a zero-sum game.

And so today, my message is this:

With our shared strengths and our levels of ambition, the UK and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can form a formidable research and innovation partnership for the future.

That’s why I’m delighted to have today signed a Memorandum of Understanding between our two governments.

This agreement will encourage our worldQ-leading researchers to form productive partnerships in the years to come.

And I lay down the challenge to British Universities and institutes: come now and seek opportunities to collaborate in the innovative and fast growing Saudi economy.

Our two countries’ collaborations in this space are young, but we already have over 50 formalised partnerships.

Over the last decade, they have delivered everything from joint centres of excellence, to research collaborations and visiting researcher programmes.

Based on scientific publications, I am proud that Britain is already the Kingdom’s third largest collaborator in research and innovation.

Actions matter, not just words, and that is why this May, I and a very senior delegation of UK businesses and ministers will return to Saudi Arabia in full force to launch our GREAT Futures Campaign - another chance to turbo-charge our innovation agenda.

Honoured attendees, it is hard to think of a single challenge we face which won’t require innovation.

The ‘to do’ list for global research and innovation has never run to so many lines.

The horrifying consequences of anti-microbial resistance or future zoonotic disease pandemics.

Protecting societies from extremist ideologies and keeping our children safe online.

The growing challenges of obesity, cancer and dementia - whilst not neglecting the hunger and disease still faced by too many in the developing world.

And that’s before we contemplate the need for new low carbon energy systems, creative ways to support mass urbanisation or urgent action to protect nature on our congested and fragile planet.

Global challenges require a global response.

And each of us in our national governments have a critical role to play.

From revolutionary stem cell treatment for reversing sight loss to the first transatlantic flight run on 100% sustainable aviation fuel, the UK shows how publicly-funded research working with private capital and business can help transform the world for the better.  

Perhaps there is no better example than the COVID-19 vaccine, which went on to save an estimated 6 million lives and freed billions more across the globe from lockdown.

The success of the vaccine only happened as the result of the excellence of Britain’s Universities combined with the innovation of our life sciences companies.

Saudi Arabia is on a similar path.

Government-led investment – combined with reforms designed to unleash innovation, like the establishment of the Research, Development and Innovation authority – is already delivering impressive results from public health to energy and the environment.

NEOM and KAUST are employing digital twinning technology to set up the world’s largest coral reef restoration project.

And like the UK’s BioBank, the Saudi Human Genome project, is capturing the genetic blueprint of Saudi society to tackle disease with personalised medicine.

Our commitment is strong and unwavering.

Last month saw UK annual investment in research and development reach its highest ever level.

The UK will spend £20 billion across the coming financial year.

As a country That’s one fifth of all government capital expenditure.

And it adds up to more than £100 billion between now and 2030.

Now, we are laser-focused on building an innovation ecosystem where it is simple and rewarding to take that world-leading research, and use it to start and scale a successful business in Britain.

This is not just happening in world-renowned powerhouses like Oxford, Cambridge and London, but in every corner of the country.

Take Stevenage – I don’t imagine many of you have heard about this town that sits squarely in the middle of England.

Yet the Bioscience Catalyst science park in Stevenage is the single largest cluster of cell and gene therapy companies in Europe.

This is no coincidence. Cutting-edge companies from around the world have chosen the UK to start-up and scale-up precisely because of those public-private partnerships I have been talking about.

From small satellite manufacturing in Glasgow to semiconductors in South Wales, our thriving R&D ecosystem means that there are stories like this up and down the UK.

In fact, my team have developed a new Cluster Mapping Tool to make it easier for investors, entrepreneurs and government to identify these hot spots of innovation.

Of course, success will never be exclusively about raw investment. 

We in government also have a responsibility to ensure that regulators can provide innovative businesses with the clarity and certainty that they need to get their products and services to market  quickly.

I have run businesses myself, and I know how frustrating it can be to have a brilliant idea you are unable to execute, because clunky rules, risk averse regulators or out-of-date laws don’t allow for it.

Good regulation should encourage innovation, not stifle it, even as we refuse to compromise on safety.

Even in fast moving technologies, the right balance of regulation can help provide certainty to invest.

A good example is the UK’s approach to the safety of Frontier AI and last years summit at Bletchley Park.

It is why we have made delivering an ambitious regulatory reform agenda a top priority in the UK, and a key pillar in our science and tech framework.

To conclude my remarks:

We all in this room have an incredible opportunity.

It’s an exciting time in innovation and an exciting moment to be an innovator.

That’s true individually but it is also true at the whole economy scale where countries like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom seek to be innovator economies; to grow and to improve the lives of their citizens and make a wider contribution.

But at a time of shared global challenges, none of us can do it alone.

We in government must work together – such as in the agreement the UK has today signed with Saudi Arabia – and by doing so we can support bigger, better, bolder science than we could ever do alone – and take on and solve the challenges that will define the future.

Thank you.

From: Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and Andrew Griffith MP