Happy Birthday DSIT!

Daniella Bennett Remington

DSIT was created on 7 February 2023 with elements of both the now-defunct Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) to spearhead Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s ambition to make Britain a scientific superpower - or as the departmental blurb says, position the UK “at the forefront of global scientific and technological advancement.” Its other key missions include driving innovation to help fuel economic growth, delivering digital infrastructure and regulation for the private sector and public services, and guiding research and development funding. Led by Michelle Donelan, who was previously Secretary of State for DCMS and one of the cabinet’s foremost devotees of the X/Twitter video clip, DSIT can claim to have made progress. Its achievements include helping convene the UK’s high-profile global summit on Artificial Intelligence (AI) safety and publishing ambitious 10-year strategies for various scientific and tech fields.

Here’s a roundup of what DSIT have been busy with in its first year:

Legislation

DSIT oversaw the final stages of the Online Safety Act, which received royal assent in October 2023. The law, which originated in DCMS and was subject to multiple reviews since it appeared in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, promises to ensure online firms make the internet safer, by removing and filtering illegal and harmful content, and protect children online. It also grants Ofcom, the sector regulator, powers to enforce the measures and take disciplinary action where necessary. In November 2023, the regulator set out its first steps tech firms could take to create a safer online environment, saying protecting children would be its first priority.

DSIT are the lead Department on the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, which at the time of writing is awaiting the Committee stage, and the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill (in conjunction with Department for Business and Trade), which is receiving Committee scrutiny. The former seeks to create an independent data protection framework, establishing regulatory oversight for various aspects of online data usage, such as the provision of electronic signatures and biometric information.  The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill aims to regulate competition in digital markets, the responsibility for which has been devolved to the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA).

Key Policy Developments

  • The UK Science and Technology Framework, which was published in March 2023, set out 10 key actions which aimed to make the UK a “Science and Technology Superpower” by the end of the decade. The Department identified its five critical technologies as AI, engineering biology, future telecommunications, semiconductors, and quantum technologies.
  • At the London Tech Week in June 2023, the acting Secretary of State, Chloe Smith (standing in while Donelan was on maternity leave) delivered the opening speech, where she highlighted the value of tech in growing the economy, which required investment in research and developing technical skills. She also announced a £50m package with UK Research and Innovation to fund 42 projects to explore the acceleration of responsible AI and machine learning.
  • The AI Safety Summit on 1–2 November 2023, brought together global leaders in the field to discuss AI regulation and development. One of the major talking points from the event was a one-to-one discission on AI, tech, and the future between Sunak and Elon Musk, in part due to the Tesla, X/Twitter and SpaceX chief’s prediction that tech advancements could make work redundant. The Summit followed the publication of the 2022 AI White Paper ‘Establishing a Pro-Innovation Approach to Regulating AI’ which has informed DSIT’s work in this fast-developing area.
  • On 1 January 2024 the UK rejoined Horizon Europe, providing renewed access to a large international research collaboration framework. The move, agreed in September 2023, has been welcomed by the scientific community which was disappointed by the UK’s exit from the programme following Brexit.  
  • Project Gigabit sets out an ambition to reach at least 85 percent gigabit-capable broadband coverage by 2025 and nationwide coverage by 2030. In December 2023, the Government said coverage was already at 79 percent.
  • The National Quantum Strategy, published in March 2023, is another DSIT 10-year strategy which aims to help the UK become a leading quantum-enabled economy. This included a pledge of £2.5bn of investment into quantum science and engineering and creating a national and international regulatory framework.
  • The UK Wireless Infrastructure Strategy, released in April 2023, pledged nationwide coverage of standalone 5G to all populated areas by 2030, alongside £40m in funding to establish 5G Innovation Regions across the UK and an £100m in investment in the future of 6G.
  • The July 2023 National Space Strategy in Action pledged over £10bn in funding for “space activities” over the next decade.
  • The National Semiconductor Strategy, published in May 2023, set out the government’s vision to develop the sector in the UK, increase the resilience of domestic supply chains, and to protect national security. The strategy envisaged the UK becoming a world leader in semiconductor technologies over the next 20 years.

With Labour riding high in the polls, attention is inevitably shifting to what the opposition party plans for the sector. It remains to be seen whether Labour will retain the existing departmental structure, but given the party’s resistance to the term “levelling up”, some degree of restructuring appears likely to better reflect the party’s priorities. Labour’s recently-published life sciences vision pledged to provide a stable funding environment and retain tax credits for research and development into this “vital growth sector”. Their industrial strategy, published in September, also recognised the importance of technology to harness economic strength and “transform challenge into opportunities”. Until the publication of a specific sector vision, these early commitments suggest that science, innovation and technology will feature prominently in the Labour plans. For now, DSIT can celebrate producing more 10-year strategies in its first year than most government departments manage in a decade, alongside a growing list of international partners, most recently Canada, who just signed a dual set of agreements on science and innovation collaboration and AI compute.

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