British science and technology in 2024: Implications for ‘Net Zero’


Since the dawn of human civilisation, we have rarely – if ever – witnessed a scientific and technological transformation as rapid as the one we are living through right now. Its implications are profound. This transformation presents new and urgent challenges – but also exciting opportunities. As I have argued, science, technology and innovation should be the core of a new national purpose for Britain.

At the same time, the world faces the existential challenge of climate change and environmental degradation.

The world has set itself hugely ambitious targets for getting to Net Zero. And it has to meet those targets as the world keeps on developing and therefore consuming more energy.

The only solution is to accelerate technological innovation and Britain has a crucial role to play and opportunity to seize.

A new national purpose centred on science, technology and innovation will help to make the United Kingdom (UK) more prosperous and help Britain prepare for the economy and infrastructure of the future. In this light, the drive for Net Zero should be seen not as a burden, but rather as the best way the UK can invest in its own future prosperity.

This is why I welcome this new Caudwell Strong Britain report. The report, compiled by Dr Mann Virdee, unpacks the strengths and weaknesses of the UK’s science and technology ecosystem, and in doing so helps us to understand why Britain is falling behind in this new revolution. The government’s lack of a coherent vision for science and technology, the shortage of investment, and brain drain are serious threats to the UK’s reputation and standing as a global hub for science and technology, and a country serious about the green transition.

The twin challenges of this technical transformation and climate change should alter our thinking about Net Zero and how science and technology can be harnessed to tackle this issue while boosting prosperity across the country.

The proposals in the Report will stimulate understanding of how to improve the performance of the British science and technology powerbase – as well as how to create the scientific and intellectual ecosystem which underpins it.

– Tony Blair
Executive Chairman, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, 1997-2007


When I look at the United Kingdom today, I cannot help but feel something is not working. Whether it is our strained public services, crumbling buildings, raw sewage discharged into our rivers, or our lethargic economy, we seem to have resigned ourselves to the idea that ‘this is just how it is now’.

I do not accept this. I believe Britain can do much better. We need a bold plan based on science, technology and innovation to tackle the most pressing and intractable challenge of our time, climate change, and simultaneously boost our economy.

Britain has an important part to play in helping the world to decarbonise and to create a more prosperous future for all. We all have a duty to humanity and to future generations to ensure that we bequeath them a world that is flourishing.

Other countries have realised this. They are boosting their efforts to invest in science and technology and they are starting to reap the benefits. The UK has begun to address its failures – investment in research and development is growing – but more should be done to stay ahead.

This is why I commissioned this research project, Caudwell Strong Britain, at the Council on Geostrategy.

The study, conducted by Dr Mann Virdee, is based on a survey of the views of those at the forefront of science and technology in Britain. If we want to know what is holding back scientists and innovators, what better place to start than asking them? I know how important entrepreneurship is and I am keen to ensure the UK is in the strongest position for the green transition and the prosperity it can offer.

– John Caudwell
Businessman and philanthropist

Executive summary

  • Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of modern times. It threatens our environment and ecosystems, as well as human health and wellbeing through impacts on agriculture, infrastructure, and social, political, and economic institutions more broadly.
  • The United Kingdom (UK) has made progress in tackling climate change, and decarbonised faster than any other Group of Seven (G7) economy between 1990 and 2021. However, further progress and the target of becoming a Net Zero economy remains a challenge.
  • The transition to Net Zero is at the heart of Britain’s efforts to tackle climate change and ensure the future prosperity of the planet. It is also an opportunity for the UK to reap the benefits of a global shift towards the green economy and to compete with countries around the world for investment in green technologies, businesses, infrastructure, talent and skills. 
  • The green economy is growing rapidly, and Britain is losing out on the benefits of this to competitors such as the United States (US), People’s Republic of China (PRC), and many of the countries of the European Union (EU).
  • Through a survey of over 60 scientists, innovators and business leaders, policymakers and policy experts, this Report investigates how Britain can build a greener, more competitive, and resilient science and technology base and unlock the nation’s potential for enhanced prosperity and security. 
  • According to this research, respondents believe Britain’s scientific and research base is hampered by a number of problems, such as:
    • Incoherent strategy: The UK’s current approach to science and technology lacks a coherent long-term vision;
    • Average business investment: While British research and development (R&D) expenditure has increased, business investment has stagnated, showing potential for improvement;
    • Short-term funding: Funding mechanisms often prioritise short-term projects, stifling long-term innovation;
    • Bureaucratic burden: The current application process for funding is cumbersome, particularly for small businesses; 
    • Risk aversion: The UK should be more comfortable with calculated risks in R&D, especially in areas critical for realising Net Zero;
    • Skills Gap: Britain’s current visa system is a barrier to attracting top international talent, and risks making the country a less competitive environment internationally;
    • Limited access to infrastructure: R&D infrastructure will decline without investment and maintenance, and there is inadequate access to key infrastructure, such as laboratories and data centres, which hinders research efforts in the UK.
  • These findings highlight weaknesses in the British science and technology ecosystem and help to explain why the UK is lagging behind when it comes to seizing the opportunities offered by Net Zero. The weaknesses with respect to Net Zero can be summarised as follows:
    • Lack of coherent vision: The lack of a clear, coherent vision and long-term commitment from HM Government makes it difficult for researchers, innovators, and investors in green technologies to plan for the future;
    • Shortage of investment: The UK – and particularly British business – does not invest enough in R&D, and there is a particular shortage in funding for start-ups at a post-fundamental research stage – when they are trying to commercialise, but before they are profitable;
    • Unattractive environment for skills and talent: The UK risks becoming an unattractive environment for the world’s best and brightest researchers and may lose talent to countries with more stable and supportive R&D environments for green technologies.
  • Consequently, if the UK is to reach the objective of becoming a Net Zero economy by 2050, HM Government should:
  1. Ring-fence British science and technology R&D spending and link it by law to the countries which invest the most in R&D as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP); 
  2. Develop a coherent cross-departmental roadmap to unlock prosperity through science and technology;
  3. Review its discretionary planning system and liberalise planning laws;
  4. Expand the foresight capacity and capabilities of the Government Office for Science, particularly with respect to the UK’s performance and how the international landscape is evolving;
  5. Generate a long-term plan for British science and technology skills and talent, including reform of its visa arrangements;
  6. Craft a Decadal Funding Plan for R&D in areas of science and technology identified as being of national importance in the UK’s long-term strategy, as well as expand trials of funding methods which are high risk, high reward;
  7. Investigate how public sector procurement can better support early stage businesses and cutting-edge science and technology through the Cabinet Office Public Procurement Review Service;
  8. Legislate to prevent businesses critical to the UK’s roadmap for science and technology from being sold off to foreign competitors, particularly if doing so would harm Britain’s strategic advantage or potential economic prosperity;
  9. Increase support for scale-ups through improved capacity and resources for Innovate UK;
  10. Improve databasing of science and technology R&D knowledge and capabilities across the UK.

To read the full Report, please download the PDF.

About the author

Dr Mann Virdee is a Senior Research Fellow in Science, Technology, and Economics at the Council on Geostrategy. He leads Caudwell Strong Britain. Previously, he was a researcher at the RAND Corporation, where he managed and conducted research on areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, 5G, space science and governance, biotechnology and the life sciences, and research and innovation. Mann has also worked for the UK Parliament, and the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank and IMF on issues such as global development finance, poverty, healthcare, and education. He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, an MSc from King’s College, London, and a BSc from Queen Mary University of London.


This publication should not be considered in any way to constitute advice. It is for knowledge and educational purposes only. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council on Geostrategy or the views of its Advisory Council.

No. GEPR01 | ISBN: 978-1-914441-70-7

Embedded image credit: Crown copyright 2019