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Is unlocking real estate the key to becoming a scientific superpower?


In February 2023, Sunak established a new Department for Science, Innovation & Technology.

The move was largely well-received by leaders in the science and technology community across the UK, with the hope it would allow the government to hone in on delivering key legislative and regulatory reforms to drive innovation and investment.

In March, the department launched its plan ‘to cement the UK’s place as a science and technology superpower by 2030’, providing a 10-point framework of aims, from financing innovative startups to boosting the UK’s skills base.

Last week, EG invited a host of scientists and property experts into a room, in partnership with Bidwells, to discuss how we could go about ‘creating a scientific superpower’. The panels ranged from the need for convergence, the evolution of real estate and the investor outlook which provided some great discussions. In comparison to the two secretary of state keynote speeches, it was the panel discussions recognising the audience’s queries that the room appeared to be most hooked, and dare I say, convinced by.

All talk and no action?

With the success of the scientific superpower vision depending largely on the government backing up its talk with action, it’s important to question their level of commitment to the cause.

The Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology Chloe Smith and Grant Shapps were in attendance at last week’s event. But based off Shapps’ keynote speech on sustainability and net zero targets – which have significant impact on the long-term growth and missions of those in the science and tech industry – his plan appears to consist of very little action that’s in the right direction.

With his speech focused on waiting for the “fusion power heroes” from the science and technology industry to save us, it left me questioning what the government are actually doing themselves to help tackle the climate emergency, never mind becoming a scientific superpower.

In a surprising turn of events, his claims to be on track to meet the nation’s proposed 2050 net zero targets were quickly countered by none other than audience member, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, who challenged Shapps on blocking onshore wind plans and the Climate Change Committee’s damming report on the government’s net zero progress before making a swift but impactful exit.

Without the government’s full commitment to becoming net zero, it is diminishing science and tech priorities such as generating renewable energy sources and creating new sustainable R&D premises, and in turn damaging its own scientific superpower vision. 

The role of real estate

If properly pursued, the scientific superpower vision poses as a real opportunity for the built environment sector to adapt and innovate…

When asked what the government should prioritise in its ambition to become a scientific superpower, ‘delivering the right infrastructure’ and ‘reforming the planning system’ were selected as the audience’s top two choices.

This was reflected by the ‘lab space demand outweighing supply’ rhetoric that was strongly echoed throughout the event, overshadowing some of the other real estate priorities discussed such as:

  • Building for longevity and multi-generational use
  • Encouraging retrofits and fit-outs over new builds
  • Ensuring sustainability goes much further than accreditations

Expressed as a clear concern by industry professionals, the demand vs supply argument is fuelled by various report findings, like Knight Frank’s. It claims the Golden Triangle is heavily restricted by a lack of space, with estimates of 1m sq ft of lab space needed in Cambridge alone but only c.24,000 sq ft available.

Another notable concern was the issue of attracting international companies to establish bases in the UK. It was only recently that American multinationals Eli Lilly and AbbVie pulled out of its UK investment plans due to too much planning red tape and a “stifling commercial environment”.

Both these concerns suggest that whilst the built environment could be the key to unlocking further investment, jobs and innovation, it must overcome some key challenges if it wants to compete with the global science and technology industry.

Meeting Place’s own experience of navigating the challenges and opportunities posed by this sector have taught us that you must think ahead of the curve. Whilst incredibly important, it’s not just reforming planning processes and unlocking space through initiatives like Local Development Orders that are needed.

 Surrounding infrastructure, housing, utilities and transport to support the people in science and tech clusters are just as key. It’s only when these are all done right, that you can have a recipe for success – in this case to become a scientific superpower.

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