One Nation Science

Jo Johnson outlines the government’s commitment to boost collaboration between business and universities and encourage diversity in STEM.

The Rt Hon Jo Johnson

It’s a pleasure to be here to see first-hand how universities and businesses across the region are coming together to power innovation and growth.

The Prime Minister and Chancellor have been clear that this is a ‘One Nation Government’, and today I want to talk about ‘One Nation Science’. That means 2 things:

  • upholding the very best in British science and research. We should be proud of our science base – it’s one of our country’s great success stories. With less than 1% of the world’s population, the UK produces 16% of top quality published research
  • it also means developing that excellence for the whole country, making sure all areas and all groups of people can reach their full potential

One Nation Science is bold and ambitious. And that’s why in our manifesto, we set a clear goal: for Britain to be the best place in Europe to innovate, patent new ideas and set up and expand a business. That mission extends to all parts of the UK.

I am delighted to be at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) to see for myself the strong base on which we want to build. Yorkshire has a reputation for the practical and you should be proud of the practical impact of the work you do.

When our Army needed a tougher suspension system for its Warrior vehicles, Sheffield’s Tinsley Bridge answered the call. They developed the ‘Extralite’ torsion bar in just 5 months, with a Smart award from Innovate UK. This new system was stronger and lifted vehicles higher off the ground, saving lives by increasing troop protection against IEDs and mines.

There are many more examples. So it’s no surprise that Innovate UK has invested over £61 million in Yorkshire since 2010, including last year over £12 million to projects in the Sheffield City Region. I’m pleased to be here in the University of Sheffield, home to 2 nodes of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, in Advanced Machining and Materials and in Nuclear, with well over 100 industrial partners.

Productivity and investment in science

This city is a great place to talk about the role of science and innovation in boosting our country’s productivity.

Public investment in science delivers strong returns to the economy of at least 20% per annum, and leverages in private investment. We are today publishing research that shows that every pound of UK public funding for research generates between £1.13 and £1.60 of private investment and we know that private investment generates further returns to the UK economy of up to 50%.

This is why UK taxpayers invest £10 billion a year in research and innovation.

We protected the science budget in cash terms through the last Parliament.

And this is why we will now invest new capital on a record scale – £6.9 billion in new equipment, new laboratories and new research institutes across the UK. This new science capital also includes £2.9 billion for a Grand Challenges Fund, which will allow us to invest in major facilities of national and international significance, such as our £235 million investment in the Sir Henry Royce Institute for materials research and innovation, based in Manchester but with a hub in Sheffield.

Touring the UK

Since starting as Science Minister a few weeks ago, I have been travelling the country to see how this record capital investment is being put to good use.

At the Met Office in Exeter, I saw how our £97 million investment in a new supercomputer will cement the UK as the most accurate national weather forecaster in the world. Today a 4 day weather forecast is as accurate as a 1 day forecast 30 years ago, with implications for industries such as aviation, shipping and agriculture. This computer will be 13 times more powerful than the current system, able to perform more than 16,000 trillion calculations per second.

At the Diamond Light Source in Harwell, which I visited last week, I saw how our investment is enabling scientists to probe deep into the basic structure of matter, allowing over 7000 researchers to develop new products from medicines to biofuels.

And last month, in launching a £113 million ‘big data’ investment partnership with IBM at the Hartree Centre in Daresbury, I saw how we are managing to ‘crowd in’ private investment. Expanding the Hartree Centre substantially, both at Daresbury and Harwell, will encourage ‘big data’ companies to co-locate, as IBM has done with a package worth up to £200 million.

IBM is far from alone. Over the past year we have seen an 11% increase in inward investment projects with an R&D element. Such collaborations are often a precursor to major foreign direct investment, paving the way for long-term relationships.

Alongside this great science at home, British scientists are leaders in their fields abroad, winning an outsized share of European grants. I’m pleased today to announce that the UK is joining the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. This will reinforce the contribution that British researchers make to some of the world’s most pressing challenges.


So as we look to make Britain best place in Europe to innovate, we start from a position of strength. But we need to do more, not just to commercialise past research, but to meet future challenges too.

That is why Ann Dowling’s recent Review of Business-University Research Collaboration is important. We will respond to her recommendations by the Spending Review, including how to take forward the central recommendation of simplifying support for business.

And we mean business on this. Our universities are successfully engaging with industry and the returns from collaborations are now greater than ever before. HEFCE’s latest report on business-university interaction – published today, shows the value of these partnerships has reached record levels. Our Productivity Plan set out our ambition for universities to continue to increase their collaborations to £5 billion per annum by 2025.

Our innovation agency, Innovate UK, is developing a new strategic plan that will help achieve this vision. As part of this plan Innovate UK will set out how it will build on excellence throughout the UK, working with others to identify where it can invest locally in areas of strength to help support the development of clusters.

We know that the only way to secure a truly national recovery is through a fundamental rebalancing of the British economy. This is why we have committed to 28 City Deals, signed a historic Devolution Agreement with Greater Manchester and are working towards further devolution for Sheffield City Region and elsewhere.

To ensure that productivity grows nationally we need to empower cities like Sheffield to reach their full potential. Productivity here is currently less than half that in Oxford and London. Research and innovation have a critical role to play in plugging these productivity gaps around the country.

One Nation Science

At present, 46% of public investment in research goes to the golden triangle. This reflects the strength of internationally-renowned universities in London, Oxford and Cambridge. We must and we will continue to fund research on the basis of excellence and ensure we are competing with the very best in the world.

But we do have to ensure we recognise that other parts of the country have proven research excellence in their universities, and ensure we fund excellence wherever it is found in order to realise the productivity gains that we have seen in the Golden Triangle. To achieve this we need a new approach – one that promotes and protects our reputation for world-class science, and also drives growth and raises productivity for the whole of the UK.

Science and innovation ‘audits’

So the first part of One Nation science is to take a more thoughtful approach to place. I have asked officials to work with local areas to develop ‘audits’ mapping local research and innovation strengths and infrastructure. These deep dives will provide a new way to identify and build on areas of greatest potential in every region.

As preparation for this, we are today publishing Mapping Local Comparative Advantage in Innovation, bringing together for the first time a range of research and innovation indicators for each of the 39 Local Enterprise Partnership areas in England.

For the audits themselves, we want consortia of higher education and research institutions, local partners and business to come forward- and we will make resources available from government, Research Councils, HEFCE and Innovate UK to help analyse and interpret the rich data sources to understand the areas of greatest potential.

These audits will be open and transparent. They will help local areas to identify emerging scientific strengths. And they should help focus efforts to access £580 million of EU Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) available for R&D. Together with match funding the total pot exceeds £1 billion.

In government, they will give us the tools to recognise and reward excellent research proposals that reflect local strengths and leverage local funds. In our Productivity Plan, we set out how the Research Partnership Investment Fund will in future consider the potential for local economic growth and local collaboration, alongside the focus on excellence

I welcome that Paul Nurse is looking at this as part of his wider review and look forward to his report later this year.

Catapults across the country

The Productivity Plan also committed to look for opportunities to develop the UK’s network of Catapults and spread the benefits. Just this week, the Chancellor announced new locations that will benefit. The Precision Medicine Catapult headquarters will be located in Cambridge, with centres of excellence in the North of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and southern England - creating a Catapult presence in several parts of the country that have not yet benefitted from this network.

And building on the life sciences excellence identified in the north west with the Precision Medicine Catapult, we have also announced a new Medicines Technologies Catapult in Alderley Park in Cheshire. With the existing Cell Therapy Catapult, this will put the UK in a leading position to support all stages of the life sciences innovation cycle. Working with Innovate UK, I have agreed that this new approach of considering the location alongside technologies would continue for any future Catapults.

STEM skills and diversity

One Nation Science is about more than place and our economic geography. The second aspect I want to talk about is people. If UK research is to reach its full potential, we must also make best use of all the tremendous talent we have here in the UK.

The last government was determined to improve diversity in public appointments and this government will keep up that momentum. But in science and innovation, the focus cannot be limited to public appointments alone. We need to take a holistic approach, looking at the whole talent pipeline, from STEM teaching in schools through to research grants and the diversity of sector leadership.


For our schools, we have announced £67 million for the next 5 years to recruit and train an extra 2,500 maths and physics teachers and upskill 15,000 existing maths and physics teachers.

Our STEM Ambassadors programme is doing important work to inspire more young people into science, and especially girls. We must push for faster progress. Only one in ten Computing students is female. And only 19% of girls who achieved the top grade in GCSE physics go on to study physics at A-Level, compared to 49% of boys.

And last year we initiated the Your Life campaign which aims to increase participation in maths and science studies at age 16 and beyond, with an ambitious target to increase the number of students taking maths and physics at A level by 50% in 3 years.


I know that apprenticeships are a subject close to the hearts of many here today: you have a very strong apprenticeship programme here at the AMRC, with 600 young people taking advanced apprenticeships. I am looking forward to meeting some of your apprentices shortly.

And I am pleased to be able to announce today that the University of Sheffield is further expanding the AMRC’s successful apprenticeship programme, to create pioneering degree-level apprenticeships, with the support of a £1.6 million grant from HEFCE. This will provide new work-based routes for young people to achieve professional Chartered Engineer status.

This exciting new programme will widen access to higher education and technical training. This is a core part of One Nation Science. I know from personal experience how a lack of ‘science capital’ in a family can pass on across the generations. No group should feel excluded; no group should be made to feel that science is “not for them”.

Universities/STEM workforce

When we inspire people into science and engineering, we need to make sure that they have the opportunities to progress. That’s why an important strand of the Your Life campaign is the call to action under which over 200 organisations are taking steps to encourage the appointment and progression of people from a wide range of backgrounds: particularly women.

We support the Athena Swan charter, which recognises employers’ commitment to advancing the careers of women in higher education and research, and we have funded an extension of the charter to Research Institutes. And we have also set up the STEM Diversity Programme, led by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. As part of this, the Royal Academy of Engineering working with engineering employers to widen their approach to recruitment.


There is much more to do. Data shows that women are under-represented in grant applications when compared to the academic population for most research councils. I commend the work of Professor Jackie Hunter of RCUK, who has been challenging universities on their diversity performance.

I know partner organisations share my concerns and are already taking action. RCUK published a statement of expectations on equality and diversity in 2013 intended to drive more rapid cultural change in institutions receiving Research Council funding.

We now have 3 years of research council grant applications and peer review data that analyses success rates by diversity. I have asked them to give me an action plan to address this continuing under-representation by December.

Vice Chancellors

I am pleased to see a number of distinguished, experienced women taking the helm recently as university vice chancellors. These appointments mean that the number of women leading universities will increase by about 20% compared with last year, but still represent less than a quarter of university leaders. Universities themselves recognise the need to go further.

Public appointments

Research Council Boards will have moved from one in four female appointments in July 2014 to around 2 in 5 by September 2015, with 2 councils achieving 50:50 gender balance. But again more needs to be done to improve representation of ethnic minorities and the disabled.


As we head into the Spending Review, we know we couldn’t have a Chancellor more committed to research.

In delivering One Nation Science, we will seize the once in a generation opportunity we now have to find an extra gear for the British economy, and ensure higher living standards for generations to come.

I look forward to working with you all to ensure we rise to this challenge.

Published 16 July 2015