This week saw the publication of the Science and Technology Framework setting out the current government’s strategy and ambition to become a Science and Technology Superpower. Fronted by the newly created Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology and under the leadership of MP Michelle Donelan, the Framework outlines ten key areas of focus in developing UK capacity (see below). Crucially for the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research & Education (BCRRE), there is a focus on the intersection of industry, academia, public, and private sectors to develop the skills and people for global scientific and technological leadership. More generally, the key thinking is illustrated by the history and current developments in rail research, innovation, education, and reform.
Leadership and impact
The foreword to the new framework by the Secretary of State, Michelle Donelan, points out the twin truths that (a) Britain has a long history of leadership and innovation and (b) when others are moving further and faster to invest in science and technology, we have got to do the same. The stated aim is not just to improve rankings but to deliver material benefits for British people.
The history of Britain’s railways and its global influence illustrates the first point perfectly. At the same time, our railway provides a perfect example of the need to modernise through innovation to provide better reliability, customer experience and value for money. Indeed, there are few better examples of how innovation can have a wider impact on our economy, social inclusion and the environment. And this, in turn, provides a great opportunity for our domestic industry, impact on other railways, creating jobs and exports to further help our economy.
BCRRE’s priorities reflect the industry challenges and opportunities, including digitalisation, decarbonisation, education, customer experience and innovation, all contributing towards global scientific leadership. Having worked closely with the railway industry, government, and academia we have established relationships and delivered real, tangible, and measurable projects that have fulfilled our priority but equally aligned with what the railways industry do desperately needs.
The new framework offers a systems approach. It provides the sort of long-term thinking promised by the government combining thinking about long(ish) term outcomes for 2030 with quick(ish) immediate actions.
It provides a holistic basis for prioritising science and technology according to “criticality” and our “strengths and ambitions” while aligning with the government’s objective of growing the economy and creating better-paid jobs and opportunities across the country. It recognises the need for a consistent approach throughout all life cycle stages from research in pure science and technology into practical application through development and innovation. And it is good to see words around the critical dependency on skills, education and people as key enablers in this system. But, of course, the key test will be whether the framework survives and drives consistent decision-making over a period of years – we will have to wait and see but we can all play our part in aligning research, innovation, and education.
At BCRRE we celebrate our strong focus on systems thinking and innovation. The gap in rail innovation, which we help fill lies in the technology levels between academic research and industry investment. Filling this gap requires a focus on solving industry challenges (such as decarbonisation), meeting evolving customer needs and expectations and improving efficiency and performance. And the systems approach brings an emphasis on consistent thinking through all stages of a project life cycle, for example, by using the same simulation tools in early project development, implementation, operations, testing, and education. Systems thinking and innovation further feature at the heart of our education, from teaching the latest technology to developing innovation thinking through student work on MSc courses and degree apprenticeships.
The framework (rightly) makes a great deal of the importance of the digital economy. And this is certainly true in the railway. Transformation of signalling and control systems, is a core capability at BCRRE, is key to getting the most out of capacity (which is still essential post-covid even though travel patterns have changed for ever). Digital technology is also fundamental to the transformation of customer experience through improved information and long-overdue reform of fares.
Regulation and the role of government in partnership
The framework is, by definition, an acknowledgement of the important role of government in establishing a long-term framework. But it also recognises the need for collaboration with academia and industry as well as partnership between the public and private sectors. It will be important for the government to continue to play this strategic role and for its partners to be empowered to develop the detail.
This, again, mirrors developments in rail reform with recent support from the new Secretary of State for Transport, Mark Harper, for plans to establish Great British Railway (GBR) as a guiding mind at arm’s length from the government, empowering local teams to deliver for customers. This will enable much needed change. And this in turn should help the industry to prioritise its own investment in science, technology and innovation while making the case for a proper share of wider investment in this area.
Equality, diversity and inclusion
One omission from the framework is the lack of explicit reference to the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in science and technology. Of course, there is a clear focus on the importance of STEM education for everyone so this is arguably implicit? But last year, the British Science Association (BSA) pointed out that “Britain could not be a science superpower if parts of society are not welcomed and able to contribute to scientific research and innovation”. Changing the status quo and fulfilling the promise in the framework may therefore require a more explicit commitment to removing the barriers to marginalised groups in science and technology.
The railway again exemplifies the issue around EDI. The railway family has made significant progress in recent years and there are signs that this is starting to help with the cultural transformation of how the industry thinks about its customers and its wider purpose in society. More clearly, for example, must be done to establish senior role models from all parts of our society and enable the industry to attract the best possible talent. The scale of the global challenge in science and rail was nicely illustrated by the mainly male audiences at last year’s World Congress for Rail Research in Birmingham and this week’s High Speed Rail World Congress in Marrakesh.
We look forward to continuing our commitment to the development of science and technology supported by the priorities of this welcomed framework.
The authors are Alex Burrows, Professor Roger Dixon, Dr Holly Foss, Dr Jenny Illingsworth, Professor Paul Plummer and Professor Clive Roberts from the Birmingham Centre for Rail Research and Education (BCRRE) at the University of Birmingham.