In a press release earlier this month, the UK government unveiled several new announcements to drive innovation in science. This comes alongside a rallying call "to put science and technology at the very top of the UK's priorities".

The announcements include an update to the Science and Technology Framework - in the last year the government provided a record £19.4 billion of R&D funding - and an interactive Innovation Clusters Map that presents firm-level innovation activity across the UK.


Among other strands, the update draws attention to the development and deployment of "five critical technologies" to the UK: AI; engineering biology; future telecommunications; semiconductors; and quantum technologies. The government is taking a tailored approach with each of these technologies to support their commercialisation and deployment. For example:

  • AI stands to benefit from £80 million of UKRI funding into AI hubs, bringing together multidisciplinary teams across academia, industry, and other stakeholders to address real world use cases across areas of the UK economy.
  • On engineering biology, the update acknowledges the National Vision for Engineering Biology, published in December 2023, that sets a commitment to invest £2 billion in this technology over the next ten years. This includes a recent (9 February 2024) announcement of a new £100 million fund for six new Engineering Biology Mission Hubs and 22 Mission Award winners, which will be hosted by institutes spanning the UK.

Over the next twelve months, the government intends to host a roadshow of engineering biology companies to bring together investors, small and medium sized enterprises, and large companies across a variety of sectors.

  • Semiconductors are recognised by the government as being fundamental to a broader strategic advantage in science and technology, due for example to being essential to advancing other technologies including AI and quantum technologies. The National Semiconductor Strategy includes investment of up to £200 million over the years 2023-2025 and up to £1 billion in the next decade.

Also over the next twelve months, the government seeks in part to improve access to commercial research infrastructure, to help UK companies to innovate on semiconductors and compete globally; and review the scale-up finance offer across advanced manufacturing as part of the Advanced Manufacturing Plan.


Fourth, according to the 2023 edition of the WIPO's Global Innovation Index, coming in behind Switzerland, Sweden, and the US. Notably, Cambridge and Oxford are ranked first and third respectively on science and technology cluster intensity (the sum of their patent and scientific publication shares divided by population).

Nonetheless, according to the economy profiles behind this index the UK ranks seventh on knowledge and technology outputs. Although other metrics contribute to these outputs, the UK's high performance in scientific impact (the UK ranks first on "citable documents H-index") is offset by "patents by origin/bn PPP$ GDP" (where the UK ranks 16th, or 20th where only PCT patent applications are considered). Related to this, the government's National Vision for Engineering Biology also highlights a discrepancy between relatively high levels of private investment into Engineering Biology (in a European context) and relatively low levels of registered IP rights resulting from this investment.

A similar picture on normalised patenting activity is seen in the EPO's Patent Index 2022: the UK ranks 17th on European patent applications1 per million inhabitants with 84.4, behind similarly sized France (ranked 13th with 160.7). As further points of comparison, Germany, with special laws on employee inventions, is ranked 6th with 296.6; the top three countries are Switzerland (with 1031.1), Sweden (with 481.8) and Denmark (with 453.2).


The UK's research base is among the best in the world, as seen from the 2023 Global Innovation Index and, for example, a 2022 international comparison by the (then) Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.

We also recognise that advances in the "five critical technologies" come in part from our universities and academic institutes, with many of the startups in these spaces still at the proof-of-concept stage. Converting the latest scientific and technological advancements into scalable commercial value2 needs support at each stage of the innovation cycle and, ideally, a stable and educated environment in which academics, entrepreneurs, start-ups, SMEs and investors can make informed decisions.

The recommendations from a November 2023 independent review of university spin-out companies are certainly welcome in this respect, with the hope that more ground breaking research gets out of the labs and in to the real world.


The latest announcements by the government on science and innovation are generally welcome. However, it is uncertain whether the Science and Technology Framework will achieve its mission of the UK becoming the most innovative economy in the world, with translational benefits in productivity and commercial growth.

In part this uncertainty comes down to which metrics are used to gauge innovation in a commercial context - patent filings are certainly indicative of commercial activity but are not the sole measure. Although the Global Innovation Index 2023 is comprehensive in its analysis (it includes 80 indicators in total), we recognise that not all inventions are suitable for patent protection (notably in the AI space), and some technologies and business models favour trade secrets over patents. Though less easy to measure, other real-world benefits - company formation, people employed, products on the market and impact on human and planetary health - may provide proxies for innovation.

All the same, we will wait to see whether the UK can close the gap with competitor economies on patenting activity on a per capita basis.


1. Direct European patent applications and international (PCT) patent applications that entered the European regional phase.

2. See for example the findings of a joint EPO-EUIPO October 2023 study on Patents, trade marks and startup finance. According to that study, on average, startups that possess these two types of intellectual property rights during their initial seed or early growth stages are up to 10.2 times more likely to successfully secure funding.

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