The past year has been hugely challenging as the Covid-19 pandemic caused lives to be lost and put the UK’s economy under massive strain. The government’s response has been significant, even if it has been frequently criticised. But whatever the debates, we mustn’t lose sight of the incredible innovation rooted in technology that the UK has shown – and it is vital that we find ways to maintain and build on this as we move forward post-Brexit.
There were many ways that technology proved its essential value through the pandemic – remote working, Zoom and Teams, shared collaboration platforms. One other key area where tech really came of age in 2020 – and in which the UK has really led the way – has been in medical and scientific research, harnessing the power of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and big data to drive innovation and discovery in the real world.
The use of AI has been crucial to the development of the vaccines against Covid-19, such as the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine – upon which all our immediate futures now depend. Machine learning systems and computational analyses helped researchers understand the virus and its structure, and predict which components will provoke an immune response. They will also help scientists track the virus’ genetic mutations over time. From all the huge datasets collected, AI is enabling scientists to perform analyses they simply wouldn’t have been able to in the past.
Another key area is to use AI to track and analyse all the inevitable reports of adverse reactions to the vaccines over time. The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is reportedly planning to use an AI tool to do that. The MHRA expects there could be between 50,000 and 100,000 reports of suspected side-effects for every 100 million doses over a six to 12-month period. Only AI could handle a task of that size.
Meanwhile, tech companies are also collaborating to use tech to create digital Covid “vaccination passports” – the Vaccination Credential Initiative.
Separately, AI has been behind another UK breakthrough that has caused huge excitement amongst scientists – DeepMind was used to determine a protein’s 3D shape from its amino acid sequence. The DeepMind program, called Alpha Fold, achieved something that many scientists did not expect to see in their lifetime. It could hugely accelerate efforts to understand the building blocks of cells and enable quicker and more advanced drug discovery, heralding a “revolution in biology”.
These are all truly exciting developments. Through the Oxford vaccine in particular, the eyes of the world are on the UK and this is something we need to build on to be a leading player on the global stage.
Brexit has now taken place. It was a great boost that, as part of the deal, the UK will continue to take part in Europe’s flagship €85bn scientific/medical research programme, Horizon Europe, as our relationship and collaboration with Europe will obviously remain critically important.
At the same time, we need to raise our eyes and look beyond European borders. The US’s new Biden presidency, for example, holds new opportunities. There are trade deals around the world to be done. We need to look for new avenues to scale and commercialise all the superb technological and scientific innovation going on right here in the UK.
Keep up the momentum
To keep up the momentum, the government has a key role to play in creating positive ecosystems for investment in technology, science and research. Much of this comes down to public policy levers, such as access to the right levels of public and commercial funding, incentives and reliefs for R&D, regulation that encourages innovation rather than blocks it, and regional investment to make good on the “levelling up” promise to stimulate thriving activity beyond the “golden triangle” of London-Oxford-Cambridge.
It also comes down to the message that we project about UK plc and the primacy that we place on technology and research. We need to train and develop our own talent – but also continue to attract the best from around the world. To do this, brilliant individuals need to have confidence that they are truly welcome, that there is long-term backing for projects here and that these projects have the profile and recognition they deserve. Getting the messaging right will be a key ingredient for future success.
We are only at the beginning of what emerging technology is capable of – there is so much more to come. The UK has put itself in a leading position and we must do everything possible to sustain it.