Transhumanist UK welcomes the UK government’s R&D roadmap

Originally published on 13 July 2020.

Transhumanist UK welcomes and responds to the publication of the UK government’s policy paper “UK Research and Development Roadmap”.

Earlier this month, the UK government published a policy document with the stated vision “to attract global talent, cut unnecessary bureaucracy and cement the UK as a world-leading science superpower”.

This roadmap document, rightly, recognises the critical importance of science, research, and innovation:

From the industrial revolution to the invention of radio, from vaccines to the World Wide Web, the contribution that science, research and innovation make to the world and people’s lives is unquestionable. Through a mix of curiosity and application, we have increased our understanding of ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Through inventiveness comes great progress.

Over 60 pages of A4, the policy document (PDF) contains a number of specific proposals, and requests feedback on the content. It describes itself as “the start of a big conversation on what actions need to be taken and how”.

To move the conversation forwards, Transhumanist UK offers the following comments.

The Roadmap is to be congratulated on its section entitled “Being honest about where we need to improve”. Some headline quotations from the text are worth emphasis:

  • “On public funding, we acknowledge that short-term spending settlements can limit people’s ability to develop long-term plans…”
  • “British business invests less in R&D compared to similar nations, and this investment is concentrated in major players in just a few sectors…”
  • “As in other countries, we know bureaucracy in research is a problem…”
  • “Some parts of R&D exhibit features of an unhealthy work culture, including evidence of bullying, harassment and discrimination. Progress to address these issues has been too slow…”
  • “Despite strong national performance in science, research and innovation, UK R&D intensity and funding is concentrated in some regions. Regions outside of the ‘Golden Triangle’ of London, the South East and the East of England, lag behind our competitors in Northern Europe and some of our cities underperform…”
  • “Emerging science powers and new technologies are changing the landscape of international science collaboration. National security issues are threatening the UK’s research base and its economic impact…”
  • “The COVID-19 pandemic also has shown us the fragility of the funding system, with large sections of our national research activity dependent on third-party funding sources, including international student fees…”

Transhumanist UK applauds this willingness to see matters objectively, rather than being carried away by misplaced naive optimism (or being subdued by excess pessimism).

The following chart from the Roadmap indicates how, compared to many other leading industrial nations, the UK presently invests a smaller proportion of the national GDP in research and development:

The UK government has announced plans to reduce this shortfall:

In March, the Chancellor announced a record increase in public investment in R&D – committing to reaching £22bn per year by 2024/25

Of course, what matters isn’t just the quantity of funding available. What matters is the effectiveness with which that funding can be deployed.

Accordingly, as the Roadmap document proceeds, it sets out a number of questions. It asks how the UK can:

  • Provide the most effective forms of funding and management for researchers and research organisations, incentivising work of the highest quality.
  • Most effectively support applied research that can help tackle the most complex and pressing challenges of government, industry and wider society.
  • Take “bigger bets” – on a small number of ambitious programmes and institutes in genuinely transformational areas of science and research.
  • Be more prepared to take risks to achieve potentially greater gains from research, and adopt long-term approaches to investing in research.
  • Engage with people and in places across the country, to strengthen and improve our research and innovation system and inform our priorities and choices to enable us to build a better future after the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Embed horizon-scanning to identify early and prepare to exploit our emerging strengths effectively, including discoveries that are ready for development, exploiting these for the prosperity and security of the UK.
  • Improve our funding and decision-making approaches, embracing light-touch, ultra-fast and flexible processes with minimal red tape.
  • Enable international collaboration of UK R&D and strengthen current collaboration mechanisms.
  • Remove barriers to interdisciplinary research to realise the benefits of diverse perspectives and technologies.

These are all good questions. Rather than drilling down at the moment into any one of these questions, Transhumanist UK offers a bigger question: what kind of change in public understanding will raise a greater appetite from people at all levels of society to address these matters?

If we truly can engage the hearts and minds of a larger proportion of the population in support of large transformational projects in science and technology, the individual problems will become more manageable. With many hands, we can make light work.

That’s why Transhumanist UK particularly welcomes the part of the R&D Roadmap which features “moonshot” ambitions:

Some major research and innovation challenges require a coordinated, multi-disciplinary approach. “Moonshots” – ambitious, measurable goals which could have a significant impact on an important societal issue – can galvanise actors from across disciplines, government, academia and industry.

Government-backed moonshots are a choice about issues that we care about addressing, are prepared to support and fund over a sustained period, that can inspire people, and that create opportunities for unexpected discoveries, rapid development and ground-breaking benefits. If we get this right, moonshots could give us new focus to solving some of our key challenges in the decade ahead, going beyond blue sky thinking to ensure great ideas can be used to solve the biggest problems.

The document recommends “seven central principles to guide the development of a moonshot”. Moonshots should:

  1. Excite and inspire the public, academia, and industry
  2. Help solve an important societal issue
  3. Be truly disruptive and ground-breaking
  4. Focus on areas where the underpinning science is at a stage to make a major breakthrough feasible
  5. Be specific and well-defined in what it sets out to achieve, with a clear timeframe for completion
  6. Take advantage of areas where the UK is, or is poised to be, a world leader
  7. Generate significant additional benefits

The individual projects mentioned in the UK Government’s document all have merit. However, Transhumanist UK urges an increase in the ambition level – moving, as it were, from short balloon flights entirely within the Earth’s atmosphere, to true extra-planetary moonshots.

Transhumanist UK points to the fifteen “Goals for the UK” on the organisation’s website. These goals are to designed to enable the UK to obtain an abundance of all-round flourishing by 2035, sustainably, with no-one left behind against their will. These goals are also known as the “RAFT 2035” goals, after the title of the book in which they first appeared (in January this year).

Here’s what’s different about these Transhumanist UK goals compared to most other political visions.

  • Most other political visions assume that only modest changes in the human condition will take place over the next few decades. In contrast, Transhumanist UK takes seriously the potential for large changes in the human condition – and sees these changes not only as desirable but essential.
  • Most other political visions are preoccupied by short term incremental issues. In contrast, Transhumanist UK highlights major disruptive opportunities and risks ahead.
  • Finally, most other political visions seek for society to “go back” to elements of a previous era, which is thought to be simpler, or purer, or in some other way preferable to the apparent messiness of today’s world. In contrast, Transhumanist UK offers a bold vision of creating a new, much better society – a society that builds on the existing strengths of human knowledge, skills, and relationships, whilst leaving behind those aspects of the human condition which unnecessarily limit human flourishing.

To be clear, there is nothing inevitable about any of the changes foreseen by Transhumanist UK. It is even possible that the pace of change will slow down:

  • Due to a growing disregard for the principles of science and rationality
  • Due to society placing its priorities in other areas
  • Due to insufficient appetite to address hard engineering problems
  • Due to any of a variety of reversals or collapses in the wellbeing of civilisation.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the pace of technological change as experienced by global society in the last 15 years – pace that is already breathtaking – could accelerate significantly in the next 15 years:

  • Due to breakthroughs in some fields (e.g. AI or nanotechnology) leading to knock-on breakthroughs in other fields
  • Due to a greater number of people around the world dedicating themselves to working on the relevant technologies, products, and services
  • Due to more people around the world reaching higher levels of education than ever before, being networked together with unprecedented productivity, and therefore being able to build more quickly on each other’s insights and findings
  • Due to new levels of application of design skills, including redesigning the user interfaces to complex products, and redesigning social systems to enable faster progress with beneficial technologies
  • Due to a growing public understanding of the potential for enormous benefits to arise from emerging technologies, provided resources are applied more wisely
  • Due to governments deciding to take massive positive action to increase investment in areas that are otherwise experiencing blockages – this action can be considered as akin to a nation moving onto a wartime footing.

This brings the discussion full circle back to the UK Government’s R&D Roadmap document. Transhumanist UK will return to this topic in future Insight articles.

In the meantime, Transhumanist UK and the RAFT 2035 goals featured in a recent episode of the Ragged Utopia podcast. Listen here.

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