Secretary of State speech at Creating a Scientific Superpower Conference
Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Chloe Smith, gave a speech at Creating a Scientific Superpower Conference today (28 June 2023)
Tim, thank you so much for that introduction and good morning, everybody.
My thanks to EG and Bidwells for hosting another brilliant event for a second year running.
It’s a pleasure to join so many business leaders, academics, and experts in your field from such a diverse range of sectors. And, indeed, to follow a really great panel debate.
With those different backgrounds and interests, we are meeting today with a common purpose and a shared vision: to unlock the UK’s full scientific potential.
And what tremendous potential there is!
Earlier this month, in this very building, many of us were celebrating London Tech Week.
An international festival showcasing the very best of British innovation, design, technology and indeed science.
But it also offered a chance to reflect on the exceptional success of our world-leading tech sector and much more.
We boast the largest sector of that kind in Europe and the third largest in the world - behind only the US and China.
And when you look at the AI, Fintech and Bio-tech sectors, the UK is an international trailblazer. We’ve created more billion dollar ‘Unicorn’ tech start-ups than Germany, France and Sweden combined.
Last year, we became just the third country to date with a tech sector valued at $1 trillion.
And it’s a similarly exceptional story in life-sciences.
The life sciences sector alone employs around 300,000 people throughout the country – the vast majority of them outside London and the South East.
And the sector has the potential to create 130,000 more high-skilled jobs over the next decade.
In the Ox-Cam Arc – which I know is a focus of today’s conference – we have the largest density of Life Sciences R&D in the UK.
Indeed, as we all know Oxford and Cambridge are ranked in the top 5 institutions for life sciences and medicine globally ahead of London, Tokyo and Beijing.
But behind every one of these statistics are extraordinary scientific breakthroughs which are changing people’s lives every day.
You can see that in the work of businesses like Autolus and Oxford Biomedica, who are behind cutting-edge therapies harnessing the power of the body’s own cells to fight diseases.
Meanwhile, BenevolentAI and Oxford-based Exscientia are employing AI to develop new drugs to treat life-threatening conditions.
Exscientia was actually the first company anywhere in the world to develop a drug molecule designed completely by artificial intelligence – which is a major milestone for the pharmaceutical industry.
And AstraZeneca – who of course sponsored today’s conference and thank you for your support – whose COVID vaccine saved countless lives and helped us to get out of the grips of the pandemic, is now delivering a new generation of precision medicines.
With its Cambridge Discovery Centre pioneering next-generation therapies, including gene-editing and cell treatments.
Life sciences vision
For the government’s part, we want to build on this momentum.
To continue fostering British talent and British innovation.
And to secure the UK’s position as a science and tech superpower by 2030.
To that end, we’ve made substantial progress towards realising our ambitious Life Sciences Vision.
We’ve brought forward a raft of new investments in Genomics England. You’ve just heard from their Chair, Nicola Blackwood. Our funding is supporting their vital work in sequencing genomes in the NHS, helping us treat a wide range of different diseases, including some of the rarest genetic disorders.
We’ve also announced the creation of a new higher rate of tax relief for R&D-intensive SMEs and start-ups.
That will benefit businesses like Oxford Nanopore – a British scale-up success story.
They are using their unique DNA sequencing technology to detect hidden infections and transform treatments.
We’re making real progress in fostering new strategic partnerships with businesses, too.
That includes a ground-breaking agreement with BioNTech.
A deal that will bring more innovative cancer research to the UK, delivering roughly 10,000 personalised therapies by 2030.
That’s an agreement which I couldn’t be prouder to support. Not just as a member of the Cabinet, but as one of so many women in the UK who have fought their own personal battle with breast cancer.
I was fortunate enough to make a full recovery after my diagnosis three years ago - thanks in no small part to our great NHS.
But the success of today’s cancer treatments is also owed to the tremendous innovation taking place throughout our life sciences and healthcare sectors.
Life sciences growth package
We’ve sought to continue driving that innovation forward with a long-term pipeline of investment.
That includes a comprehensive £650 million package recently unveiled by the Chancellor.
With over £120 million to fast-track commercial clinical trials.
And almost £50 million to help us prepare for future pandemics so that vaccines and other life-saving medicines can be manufactured here in the UK.
But in addition to discovering new medicines, the growth package also unlocked real improvements in our infrastructure.
With a host of planning policy measures to boost the supply of lab spaces throughout the country.
Freeing up land which is desperately needed and has rightly been highlighted by Bidwells as key to unlocking long-term growth.
In the Ox-Cam Arc, the Government has also thrown its full support behind East West Rail, helping to speed up connections to the Harwell, Milton and Cambridge Science parks.
Through the Chancellor’s package, we have sought to upgrade the UK Biobank and its biomedical database. A database containing, as you’ll know, the in-depth genetic information of half a million UK citizens.
We know this information is invaluable to both researchers and doctors, helping them deliver care that’s tailored specifically to a patient’s genetic makeup.
We’ve also announced over £40 million to improve mental health – one of the key missions we committed to as part of our Life Sciences Vision.
That funding will drive innovation in new research across the UK, including two demonstrator sites in Birmingham and Liverpool.
That’s accompanied by a £10 million innovation competition to support researchers developing novel digital therapeutics, Med Tech and pharmaceutical treatments. Treatments that help people overcome opioid and cocaine addictions so they can begin to rebuild their lives.
So that’s what we’ve focused on to date.
But we want to go even further over the coming weeks and months.
As our Med Tech Strategy sets out, we want to reduce diagnostic bottlenecks and deliver on the Prime Minister’s pledge to cut NHS waiting lists.
We want to hasten the search for new ways to diagnose, treat and cure life-threatening conditions, using all the revolutionary emerging technologies available to us.
That’s one of the reasons why the Government has committed to delivering at least £50 million to support MND research between 2022 and 2027.
Since that funding was first announced, more than 70% has already been allocated to cutting-edge research projects.
Investments in AI
And just last week, the Government also announced £21 million of funding through the AI Diagnostic Fund.
That will allow NHS Trusts to accelerate the deployment of the most promising AI imaging and decision support tools.
Helping doctors more quickly diagnose cancers, strokes and heart conditions.
The convergence between AI and life-sciences couldn’t be more topical right now and I know it’s something you’ll be going into in depth at your next session.
We want to see the safe adoption of artificial intelligence in our health and care sector.
And there are already some great examples of this working in practice.
Whether it’s automated lip readers like ‘Liopa’ bringing a voice to the voiceless by improving treatments for patients who can’t speak.
Or risk prediction tools like ‘SPARRA’ in Scotland. Developed with support from the Alan Turing Institute, this application of AI can provide GPs with monthly risk scores for patients and predict the likelihood of their being admitted to hospital.
And today, I am proud to announce funding for another vital life-sciences initiative.
In partnership with UKRI MRC and Alzheimer’s Research UK, we will be investing £9.5 million into better understanding – and treating – traumatic brain injuries.
These injuries are a leading cause of death and disability in people under 40 in the UK.
They often result in devastating, lifelong health issues for survivors including poor mental health, epilepsy and dementia.
Our funding will bring together leading experts in this field.
It will support studies into the long-term effects of these injuries on groups that have too often gone overlooked by society.
Prisoners, rough sleepers, and the victims of domestic abuse.
Through the collection of this new data – including brain images – researchers will be able to identify patterns.
They’ll be able to group certain injuries together.
And they’ll be able to develop tailored treatments as doctors more easily predict how these injuries will affect their patients.
Access to capital
Beyond individual research projects, we want to ensure that our life-sciences sector – and our science and tech sectors more generally – can access the capital they need to really thrive.
Just last month, the British Business Bank announced a call for proposals in preparation for the launch of our Long-term Investment for Technology and Science (LIFTS) initiative or LIFTS for short.
An easy acronym to remember given its express purpose of helping firms attract investment and, indeed, to achieve lift off!
That call for proposals encourages new funds and structures to crowd in institutional investment.
And it promotes investment from DC pension schemes to support the growth of the UK’s most innovative science and technology companies.
The deadline for applications is the end of next month and I’m looking forward to hearing about the strong, novel proposals that are put forward.
Research Ventures Catalyst
Earlier this month, you may have seen that my department also announced the launch of our new Research Ventures Catalyst. This is an exciting new programme that will pilot collaborative ways of supporting science in the UK. It’s backed by an initial public investment of up to £50 million.
What do these research ventures look like?
Well, we see them as an approach that brings together scientists and experts from different disciplines to tackle complex problems. Crucially, these ventures are supported by co-investment from industry, charities and other third sector bodies. The UK Biobank - which I mentioned earlier - is a brilliant example of this.
A world-renowned, government-backed, scientific asset which has attracted co-investment from a whole host of organisations here in the UK. We want to see our research ventures catalyst supporting a new wave of scientific institutions and units like this to tackle some of the biggest challenges of our time.
We are asking those keen to participate in these ventures to register their interest now. We’ll be launching an open call this summer, where we will invite applications from those with bold visions to take their research to the next level.
One of the ways UK researchers, universities, and businesses have been supported in the past is through Horizon Europe.
We are actively moving forward with discussions on the UK’s involvement in this programme and I know this might be an important theme for many here today. We’re clear that we hope these negotiations will be successful. But we’re equally clear that our participation must work for UK researchers, businesses and taxpayers too.
So, although association is our hope, if we are unable to secure it on fair and appropriate terms, we will instead implement our bold and ambitious alternative – Pioneer. It would receive the same amount of funding as the UK would have paid under Horizon from 2021 to 2027.
Pioneer would trailblaze innovative new funding approaches with significant, targeted investment in R&D, infrastructure and programmes to attract and retain exceptional talent.
Our priority in all of this is to ensure the UK’s R&D sector receives the maximum level of support to continue ground-breaking research and collaboration with international partners.
That’s what Pioneer would achieve. And we have been engaging with the sector to shape the best possible plan for the UK’s continued scientific and technological advancement.
In support of that ambition too, my department recently announced the launch of an Expert Exchange programme.
We want the work of government to be informed by those who have direct experience of working in the science and technology sectors – who know the challenges of getting the best innovations out of the lab and onto the market.
So, we’re offering a whole host of opportunities across our science divisions, our cyber, data and digital infrastructure work, as well as AI, blockchain and other growth industries.
Our secondees gain first-hand experience of working in a government department on placements of up to 9 months.
It’s a fantastic opportunity to foster collaboration between the government, industry and experts on some of the most important issues facing these sectors and society today.
Secondees already working in the department have described their experiences as hugely beneficial.
And we see this as a two-way street so we’re also encouraging DSIT civil servants to undertake placements in industry and academia too - so they gain a deeper understanding of the sectors for which they set policy.
This is an approach firmly rooted in international best practice with the ambition of creating a community of secondees that are mutually beneficial to both industry and government, long after these secondments end.
We’re keen to hear from anyone interested in taking forward these types of partnerships so, if you are interested please do get in touch with my team today or through the organisers of today’s conference.
These are just some of the ways in which this government is securing the UK’s status as a true science and tech superpower.
Working with our partners in business, UKRI and academia, we are using our collective strength to drive forward innovation and growth while delivering real improvements to people’s lives.
Adhering to Marie Curie’s philosophy that nothing in life is to be feared, only to be understood, we are harnessing new technologies to further our understanding of life-threatening diseases and injuries.
And we are using science to build a more dynamic and competitive economy in which our boldest British businesses have the tools and backing they need to succeed.
That’s our vision. Working together that’s what I hope we’ll deliver.
Thank you and I hope you have a great conference.