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UK general election: the IOP is calling for a Britain powered by physics

23 February 2024

Head of Policy and Public Affairs Elizabeth Chamberlain outlines the priorities for an incoming government.

In a year that is likely to have a UK general election, at the IOP we have been thinking about what the priorities for an incoming government should be.

We believe physics can play an even greater role in building a brighter, healthier, more prosperous and sustainable society for us all.

That’s why our calls to the next government are for a 2030 Britain: Powered by Physics: the UK must find new answers to strengthen our economy, give hope to younger generations and put us on the front foot in the global technological revolution.

To achieve this, we need:

  1. A radical increase in research and development (R&D) investment to match or exceed the top OECD countries, to boost economic growth, productivity, and job creation across all parts of the UK;
  2. To equip more people with the technical skills that a 21st-century economy demands, unlocking social mobility and driving growth; and
  3. To tackle the barriers in the education system that prevent too many young people from enjoying the opportunities that arise from pursuing physics.

Why these priorities?

We are in the midst of the third industrial revolution and it is technology-driven. And almost every example of modern-day technology has its origins in fundamental physics – particle detectors, sensors, satellites, new materials, nanotechnology, advances in healthcare.

Investing in physics-powered initiatives and products is a catalyst for innovation and growth. Physics-based businesses span sectors including manufacturing, energy and services, and contribute 11% of UK gross domestic product (GDP), employing more than 2.7 million people (10% of total UK employment). As much as a third of UK businesses’ R&D takes place in industries that rely strongly on physics research. But there are big challenges that are preventing physics from fulfilling its potential.

R&D investment is not keeping pace with global frontrunners

While the UK has moved positively towards the 2.4% of GDP target for investment in R&D, our peer countries have not stood still. Even if the UK reaches 3% of GDP invested in R&D in 2024-25, we would still be behind the leaders in R&D: Israel (5.56%), Korea (4.93%) and the US (3.46%) invested a significantly higher proportion of GDP in R&D in 2021 and are likely to maintain or increase these levels.

Closer to home, Belgium (3.43%), Sweden (3.4%), Switzerland (3.36%) and Germany (3.13%) have invested in R&D at levels over and above the UK (gross domestic expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP, OECD Main Science and Technology Indicators 2023). By investing less in R&D we are at a competitive disadvantage, and our lagging labour productivity rate indicates that we are falling behind our peer countries.

We face a desperate skills gap in physics-powered industries

Of UK physics innovation firms polled for our Paradigm Shift report, 63% expected their R&D/innovation spend to increase in the next five years. This represents a major opportunity for the UK. However, two-thirds (66%) of firms reported suspending or delaying R&D/innovation activity in the past five years due to skills shortages. This represents a big, missed opportunity and a major challenge for the future.

Only one in 10 (11% of) physics innovators said that they did not experience any difficulties recruiting. Finding people with a combination of commercial and specialist/technical knowledge was the most widely reported issue in every nation of the UK.

"By investing less in R&D we are at a competitive disadvantage, and our lagging labour productivity rate indicates that we are falling behind our peer countries."

Eighty-five per cent of the quantum innovators surveyed reported that R&D activity had been suspended or delayed because of skills shortages, showing that concerns around workforce skills were felt particularly acutely by businesses engaged in quantum innovation.

The IOP’s recent Solving Skills report also found that businesses are being held back by a lack of apprentices in key physics-related roles. Despite the pressing need for economic growth, a generation are missing out on the opportunities physics-related apprenticeships can offer, leaving industry desperately short of vital technical workers.

Our struggling education system denies millions of children a future in physics

Too many young people are denied the rich and inspiring future that studying physics can offer because our struggling education system denies them the opportunity to pursue physics. In particular, there is a significant and well-known problem with girls being underrepresented in physics – and the underrepresentation does not stop with girls. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, disabled people, LGBT+ people, and those from minority ethnic groups – particularly those from Black Caribbean heritage – are all underrepresented in physics.

There are two main reasons for this: too many children hear negative messages at school about physics, about themselves, and about who can do physics; and hundreds of schools (and therefore tens of thousands of students) are without access to a specialist physics teacher, most often in disadvantaged areas.

Physics can unleash Britain’s potential

Physics research, innovation, knowledge and skills can play a defining role in the realisation of our ambitions to transform our society for the better and energise our economy.

But it needs to be enabled to do this. This means:

  • increasing R&D investment and focusing more of that investment on ground-breaking research in physics, cutting-edge innovation, skills development, facilities and infrastructure;
  • equipping more people with the technical skills that are at the forefront of the new economy, by getting more young people to engage with apprenticeships as a rewarding route into employment; and
  • attracting more young people, including from underrepresented backgrounds, into physics by ensuring all schools offer inclusive and equitable environments, backed up by high-quality specialist physics teaching.