Writing in the Telegraph on 5 November, George Freeman MP, Chair of the Prime Minister's Policy Board, makes the case for doubling the percentage of our UK Aid Budget that is spent on R&D. Read the article below or listen to his interview on The Today Programme (at 53.57 mins).
You can access the his Forward and the full Policy Exchange / Gates Foundation Report "Global Britain, Global Solutions: How British R&D can transform international development" here.
Let's make science funding part of the aid budget – and help British tech save the world
Research spending can make Britain a crucible of innovation and convince former Remainers
that Brexit is worthwhile
At the heart of Brexit is a simple question: what is it for? Is this a moment for caution or for
audacious national renewal? Will we be a country that gives all its citizens the opportunity to
succeed in a globalised economy by becoming a more global nation? Or will we pull up the
drawbridge and insulate them in nostalgic isolation? Quite simply, do we face a national
identity crisis or a moment of profound rebirth?
Since the EU referendum 15 months ago, I have argued that Brexit must be the latter – as
much to inspire and win over those who didn’t vote for it as those who did. We can’t expect
former Remainers to get behind it unless we show them how it can improve their lives. If
Brexit is seen by millennial voters as a victory for narrow, nostalgic, isolationist Little
England-ism, it will fail – and deserve to.
So how can we fulfil the Prime Minister’s stated ambition to build a more global Britain? If
we are going to grow our way out of debt through trade rather than debt-fuelled consumer
booms, and if we are going to defeat anti-Western ideologies as well as the global dislocation
and poverty they feed on, we need to recognise that in the 21st century our aid, trade and
security are all closely linked. Our strategy must be too.
It isn’t complicated. We are a science and innovation superpower. We have the opportunity to
make the UK a crucible for innovative products that will be key to sustainable development
We are doing this now in a small and piecemeal way: British scientists and entrepreneurs are
at the forefront of exciting new technologies from nutrient-enhanced crops to allowing
households in East Africa to use phones to access cheap solar power. R&D is one of the most
cost-effective forms of development spending. But there remain considerable research gaps
where more funding is needed. It only makes up around 5 per cent of our aid.
Working with the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, the think tank Policy Exchange has looked
at nearly 40 different areas of research where the lives to be saved and improved make
taxpayers’ money a good investment. Millions of people die every year due to pollution from
household stoves, which cleaner cooking technologies could prevent. Asthma inhalers, so
easily accessed in Britain, are too expensive or even unavailable in the developing world.
Agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa could be transformed by more effective irrigation
techniques, lifting millions out of starvation.
Public investment in aid-related R&D can be a win-win, boosting global security and
prosperity while providing the seed capital for more innovation at home. But we will only
unlock this win-win if the public and private sector work together to find out where
additional funding can be most effective and to remove current obstacles to investment. We
should identify the biggest challenges facing the world, from fighting antimicrobial resistance
to delivering better battery technology, and offer support to those British scientists and
businesses who think they know how to help.
For example, at Porton Down in Wiltshire we have a centre of vaccine technology which
could lead the world. It is owned by Public Health England which takes the £15 million profit
it makes every year and starves it of working capital. So it is dying. Instead, we should allow
it to keep the £15 million and raise private capital. While we’re at it, let’s turn Porton Down
into a Dfid and MoD-funded bio-security campus to develop British leadership in 21stcentury
As a minister in both the health and business departments I was appalled at how Whitehall
turf wars so often triumph over the national interest. Brexit offers a chance for Britain to
cement its position as a global leader in science, and our new industrial strategy is a chance to
put innovation right at the heart of that process.
We are a science superpower, but for many years we have neglected our industries. It’s time
to embrace a global plan for British prosperity through foreign aid, trade and security, based
on taking our innovative products into the fastest-emerging markets to drive sustainable
growth. That would be a Brexit Britain worth fighting for.
George Freeman is the Conservative MP for Mid-Norfolk. Chair, the Prime Minister's Policy Board and Chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum