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Anniversary Day Address 2023 from President of the Royal Society, Adrian Smith

30 November 2023

Adrian Smith

Good afternoon to everyone and congratulations to all our Medal and Award winners. It really has been quite a year. Thank you, Julie for taking us through so much of what has happened. I’d like to start with further celebration of some of the key positives that Julie has already covered in some detail. 

There was the establishment of a new Government department, DSIT, dedicated to science, innovation and technology, a development the Society had long argued for and has welcomed. 

Association to Horizon Europe was finally secured – and again the Society had been at the forefront of pressing for this. 

In addition, the Prime Minister announced his intention to reform the education system to include some form of maths to 18 for all – very much in line with the Society’s arguments for a broader school curriculum and in particular our work on rethinking what is needed for maths education. And just last week, the Chancellor announced a £250 million endowment for the Society to establish new mid-career Fellowships, The Royal Society Faraday Discovery Fellowships, the case for which we first made in our submission to the 2021 spending review.

I also wanted to mention our Career Development Fellowships which we launched this year. Over the three years of my Presidency we have been working to build up an evidence based picture of groups that are underrepresented in science. Establishing the Career Development Fellowships pilot, which focusses on researchers of Black heritage is a small but important step in addressing the diversity of the science workforce. 

So, there have been a number of developments we can really welcome.

But there remain areas where we will face real challenges in the coming years.

Not least in providing scientific underpinning to deal with the implications of climate change and biodiversity loss.

And more generally contributing to the development and sustaining of a science and innovation base in the UK that will both maintain our position as a leading science nation and exploit our science - in the words of our Charter - ‘for the benefit of humanity'.

In the UK Government’s integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, climate change and biodiversity loss have been identified as the transnational challenges that presents the most severe tests to global resilience.

The challenges are familiar:

Extreme weather events - droughts/wildfires/flooding – happening all over the world as well as in the UK. 

Longer term impacts of climate change – famine and degradation of food production leading to potential mass population movements.

General degradation of nature – pollution, soil, pollination and over-fishing.

None of this is new. 

There is an over-whelming consensus on the scientific evidence as seen in the most recent reports of the IPCC. 

And understanding of the associated economic and social threats is there in the work of Nick Stern, Partha Dasgupta and many others. 

Public understanding of the dangers of biodiversity loss is weaker but according to the World Economic Forum, the decline of natural ecosystems costs the global economy an estimated $5 trillion a year in lost natural services and reversing this trend has the potential to create 395 million jobs by 2030.

Surveys suggest that three quarters of adults in Britain are worried about the impact of climate change with over a third of the population believing that environmental issues are the most important we face.

However, recognising a need for action is one thing, agreeing a way forward is another. 

We have had hundreds of years of growth based on a carbon intensive economy, breaking that habit is not easy. 

While the long-term benefits of the switch to a net-zero economy may be clear, they may seem rather distant, unreal or even threatening to someone facing losing their job in a traditional steel mill or resenting the feeling of being pushed towards buying an expensive electric car, or in switching from a gas boiler to a heat-pump.

The challenge for policy makers is clear, domestically and internationally. There is a political imperative to achieve a consensus on practically achievable solutions. 

We have worked in the Society to provide scientific underpinning of such solutions - solutions that can stimulate economic growth, something the UK could really do with right now. 

In responses to Chris Skidmore’s net-zero review, there was wide-spread agreement that technology transition to net-zero potentially provides the growth opportunity of the 21st Century.

And that the UK is well-placed to take advantage given our comparative advantage in several key areas – notably offshore wind, carbon capture and storage, and green finance. 

McKinsey has estimated a global market opportunity of £1 trillion for British businesses by 2032 and the Government estimates that the transition towards net zero might underpin nearly half a million jobs in 2030. 

To deliver such change will require collaboration – across political divides, across nations, across political philosophies. We need a long-term plan; domestically that requires political consensus and both nationally and internationally it requires vision and leadership. 

Fellows of the Royal Society have played a significant role in our understanding of the problem and to developing the basis of solutions, but policy makers need to set out a long-term plan that will create stable conditions, inspire us and energise us all to play our part. 

The Covid pandemic was a shock, the likes of which we had not seen in decades. But in the immediate crisis, the science community stepped up. 

We quickly sequenced the Covid genome and tracked the variants; we rapidly assessed the efficacy of treatments and developed new ones; and we produced vaccines in a time frame that would have been considered impossible five years ago.

But the societal response to the climate and biodiversity crisis is less obvious; it has crept up on us over decades and has affected different people and different places in different ways.

There is a challenge for us. How can and does the Society and the wider science community contribute? Essentially, I think in three ways: by deepening and consolidating our understanding of the problems; by contributing to the development and application of existing potential solutions; and at a fundamental research level by developing new solutions.

Few now dispute the reality of climate change, but our understanding is improving all the time and hopefully this will help us to prepare for the impacts we cannot avoid and possibly mitigate the impacts that are not yet inevitable.

We should certainly lend support to developing those actions and technologies that already appear to have positive impact.

Policy makers can do some of this through incentivising markets, although some market creation policies have proven to be very slow or even ineffective. For example electric vehicles and domestic heat-pumps remain too expensive and do not meet the needs of many consumers. 

We should certainly support improved roll out of existing technologies for renewable energy production - 40% of UK energy was generated from renewables in 2022 and globally about 29% of electricity generation currently comes from renewable sources. We have to accelerate that and energy companies can and must do more.

But we really need to sort out grid connectivity. If we fail to do this, the pace of change in bringing renewables online will be hampered by not being able to get that power into the grid and into homes and factories. 

We also have major scientific and technological challenges to overcome in how we store renewable energy between its generation and ultimate use.

And it is not just the energy sector – emission reductions are essential in other sectors and for example technologies such as genome editing will surely play a part in enabling us to produce food more efficiently, using less land.

But all this requires public sector investment and engagement with the private sector.

And being realistic about what existing technology simply cannot deliver. 

The Society produced reports this year on net zero aviation and on energy storage highlighting the huge challenges that have to be overcome and the need for significant investment.

We do not believe we can eliminate all CO2 emissions by 2050 so we also need technological solutions to capture and store CO2.

We need to be smarter and more efficient, for example, with nuclear cogeneration – we use nuclear to generate electricity but it also produces a lot of heat that is currently wasted.

And governments need independent expert groups to advise where to invest – the value of expert advice has perhaps never been clearer than in the case of the vaccines task force. We will need evidenced based technology roadmaps.

Change is necessary and is happening, but it is too slow. As we go into a potential election year, net-zero should not be the stuff of partisan politics. Politicians talk of taking the long-term view – there can be no more clear canvas on which to express that than to deliver a cross party consensus and really effect change.

But to effect change, we need to take a whole system approach. We need to bring together scientists, technologists, industrialists, sociologists, economists and political scientists to develop a technically and socially viable plan.

What should be our key policy asks in the lead up to the election?

  1. The Government has committed to developing a net zero technology roadmap, but this has not been delivered.
  2. The key to delivering that roadmap and to ensuring that it can evolve and adapt as new evidence comes to light will be ensuring that government has a mechanism for getting the best independent expert advice.
  3. And we need investment certainty for research, development and deployment – companies investing need to know that the policy environment will remain stable and supportive. 

And the UK must play our part on the international stage including at the COP meetings – the latest of which begins today.

By 2050 the world will be warmer, that is now inevitable.

The latest UN Emissions Gap Report suggests we could be heading for warming of 2.7 degrees by the end of the century – that could, of course, be catastrophic. 

But we can realistically keep warming below 1.5 or 2 degrees with deeper, more rapid and sustained emissions reductions and we can learn to adapt to that.

The Society will continue to work in this area building on our existing policy and public engagement work. 

I should also say that we will also be looking close to home with our own environmental sustainability programme looking at how we can reduce our environmental impact across the full range of the Society’s own activities.

The economic arguments for action on climate change and biodiversity are part of the wider story of research and innovation being at the heart of a flourishing United Kingdom.

UK science produces enormous value for society. We led the world in developing an effective Covid-19 vaccine, building on a strong base in biological science that had been cultivated over decades. 

From the steam engine to machine learning, science has fuelled the creation of countless jobs and turbocharged our economy.

That is why the UK needs a long-term vision for science spanning both academia and industry. 

Britain has a wealth of internationally recognised strengths across a range of areas of scientific excellence. Yet, in a changing world, this can no longer be taken for granted – and the current system that supports science is severely hampered by sticking plaster solutions and stop-start investment. Providing stability through long-term thinking is not only essential for the researchers, innovators and investors the UK is seeking to attract but is also necessary as we face some of the biggest challenges ever seen on a global scale.

That scientific excellence is also spread across the UK, with innovative R&D intensive companies, excellent universities, and other high performing research organisations in every nation and region of the UK. 

Set against these positives there are also challenges. I have spoken about climate change and biodiversity loss, but we also have an ageing population, the spectre of further pandemics and geopolitical instability. 

So, if we want to be resilient to these threats and actively thrive, how do we maintain and build upon our strong base. A base that includes industry, universities, research institutes, public sector research establishments.

To try to answer that, we have started a Society project aimed at a long- term vison of what the UK science system might look like in 2040.

For me there are four key pillars that provide the context:

  • Investment
  • Infrastructure
  • Internationalism
  • Talent

Funding, of course, is important. Government increases in science funding are always welcome, and we would argue are a necessary public investment. 

Research and innovation drive productivity growth across all sectors of our economy, with 85% of productivity gains coming from R&D, as new scientific breakthroughs enable people to do even more with their time and skills.  

Every pound publicly invested in R&D is roughly doubled by the private sector – with far higher returns in science-intensive sectors like biomedical research. There is a positive story to tell here with the UK science budget set to increase by £5 billion to £20 billion annually – a 33% increase – between 2021/22 and the end of the current parliament.

Companies are drawn to invest in the UK because of the outstanding research base and access to skilled talent. The UK needs to be open and welcoming and incentivise investment but the uncertainty inherent in the all too frequent cycle of Whitehall budgets and spending reviews damages confidence in the UK as a place to do business and hampers our ability to pursue the big ideas that ultimately underpin prosperity and well-being.

The UK remains a global player in the financial markets and it is important that the research and finance communities work more closely together to mutual benefit – I hope to be able to drive forward some Society initiatives with the City in the coming year.

There appears to be political consensus on the central role of research and innovation so, as we head into a possible election year, we need to continue to try to influence the political parties towards scaling up investment over a minimum ten-year timescale and creating the right conditions for innovation to thrive. 

In this context, it was encouraging to see the Labour party answer our call for a long-term science strategy in their National Policy Forum documents and ten-year funding settlements announced at the party Conference. 

A meaningful plan for research and innovation should rightly sit at the heart of every party’s agenda for government.

A long-term vision must also look at how the UK will build the infrastructure necessary for top-level scientific research. Large scale research facilities take years to design and deliver requiring a clear strategic and stable policy environment. 

A long-term vision also means removing barriers to international collaboration. Now that our participation in Horizon Europe and Copernicus has at last been finalised, we have a very strong foundation for the internationalisation of our research endeavour but we can and should look to do more. Science is global and our worldwide collaborations and ability to attract talent must be too.

And that brings me to my final pillar – talent. 

At the beginning of my speech, I made some reference to reform of the education system. It is also crucial to ensure that people of all ages can develop the broader range of skills – both technical and academic - they will need for the well-paid jobs of the future and to be an active participant in a life that is ever more shaped by science and technology.

We must also turn our attention to attracting great people to work and study in Britain. Right now, researchers who want to bring their skills here face upfront visa costs up to ten times higher than in other leading science nations, with fees set to rise even further next year. 

This essentially boils down to a punitive tax on talent for businesses and research organisations and we must immediately move to reducing these fees if we want to show we are open for business.

Before I finish, let me flag an issue that I know is concerning many of us.

In the coming year there will be many significant elections across the globe, including here at home. The threat of misinformation and disinformation to democratic processes is real. 

We do not know how dangerous – a report on scientific misinformation by the Society in 2022 suggested that only 1 in 20 people disputed the scientific positions on the safety of COVID vaccines and the link between human activity and climate change – but, with the rapid development of AI technologies it is a threat we must be keep on our radar and the Society will continue to do so.

The recent AI Safety Summit and the surrounding activities suggest that societies can be prepared to meet these challenges – and reap the huge potential benefits of AI in for example, public services.

Finally, I want to briefly look forward to next year, which is likely to be an election year, here in the UK. Whether it is political action to help address global challenges at home and abroad or ensuring that we have the science base we need to provide the bedrock of research to not only help tackle global challenges but also to help drive our economy and create good well-paid jobs, we will be looking to all the parties to deliver for science and through science. 

To that end we are today launching our own election manifesto – do have a read and if you can provide any support for our goals, please do.

So, to conclude. There have been some real successes this year but the challenges we face, on a whole range of issues, are immense.

The Royal Society will, of course, continue to engage on those issues, not only because science has a positive story to tell in terms of helping us to understand the challenges but also to contribute to addressing those challenges, again, as our charter says, ‘for the benefit of humanity’.

 

Read the Royal Society's Manifesto for science 2023.

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