How can communications help build a UK science superpower

Science & tech is in the spotlight like never before in the UK. In the last month alone, we have seen the creation of the National Science and Technology Council and a raft of announcements in the Budget to support R&D.

In the context of the government’s ambition to be a UK science and tech superpower, it was eye opening to read this piece from Science Commentator Anjana Ahuja recently in The Financial Times, which highlighted how far the UK has to go. It described the UK’s reputation as ‘inflated by historic successes and [that it] relies on successful outliers’ (such as DeepMind) and the piece was backed up by some fascinating research into the UK’s research and innovation landscape.

But these reservations notwithstanding, the UK is in a very exciting place when it comes to science and tech, and there is an important role for communications to play to help drive the country towards this superpower status.

Firstly, we need to continue communicating innovation: and early-stage innovation is just as important as later stage commercialisation

The very nature of innovation is that it’s iterative and constantly evolving. In an environment where we need to champion UK innovation and encourage more R&D spend, it’s essential that science & tech organisations speak out about their innovations, and what they could mean for the industry, the economy and for people’s health and wellbeing. This is just as applicable to early-stage start-ups (such as the many university spin-outs we have become so famous for) as it is to the commercial organisations established to market these innovations when they are tried and tested.

Understandably, organisations can be nervous discussing a new product or breakthrough until ‘it’s just perfect’ or ready for market, as well as revealing trade secrets. But having comms work closely with science and engineering teams to help uncover these innovations, and to communicate them in a credible way, will be critical. Not just for the wider UK agenda but to attract funding and talent, through, when the times comes, to sales leads.

Secondly, we need to get the right balance between technical storytelling and accessibility

As a specific example, the life sciences industry is becoming more intertwined with our lives than ever before. This really became apparent during Covid but has exploded since, such as through the role of biotech in creating lab-grown meat to combat climate change and animal welfare; breakthroughs in drugs tackling neurodegenerative conditions, or advancements in gene therapy to treat rare diseases.

But the industry is also deeply complex and technical; artificial intelligence now plays a huge role in drug discovery, and we’re getting closer to the first CRISPR-based gene editing therapy. With science and technology becoming mainstream, it’s the role of comms professionals to break down this complexity and provide context – explaining what it does in layman’s terms, why it matters, why it is interesting and how it will impact people, our health, the environment and the economy. This echoes what an investor said to me this week: ‘the way in which a company can explain its story to me in a clear, succinct manner, is critical. I am not looking for tables of data or deeply technical information. I need to understand what the company does, how it differentiates from others in the space, and its impact, not just financially but in terms of new breakthroughs or improving lives.’

Thirdly, have a clear set of messages around how the UK can achieve this ambition

Taking a strong stance on how the UK will achieve superpower status also plays an important role in helping keep us on its trajectory.

To take a current example, we’re working with UK-based Pragmatic Semiconductor to help communicate both to policy makers and earned media around how to help grow this sector in the UK. Clear, consistent messaging; a strong opinion on what needs to be done to create a better environment for science and tech in the UK, and reacting quickly to the news agenda, has landed pieces in The BBC, Radio 4, The Telegraph, City AM, CNBC and Bloomberg as well as audiences with key players in government.

Without a doubt it is an exciting time ahead for science and technology in the UK, and an equally exciting time for comms. Clear, bold, credible storytelling will be essential to stand out in a very noisy market while supporting the wider Government’s drive towards becoming a UK science and tech superpower.