The media headlines were about the end of austerity and the digital sales tax on Google and Amazon. Yet from the viewpoint of a technology innovator it was the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s emphasis on investment in tech talent and cyber security that stood out in this year’s Budget.
While an additional £1bn was announced for defence for the remainder of this year and next, in order to enhance cyber capabilities and anti-submarine warfare, the Chancellor also stressed that “scientific and technological discovery” is “pouring out” of the country’s universities and tech industries.
He backed this up by promising £1.6bn of new investment to support technology, as set out in the government’s modern industrial strategy, such as nuclear fusion and quantum computing. The red book, which contains the detail behind what is outlined to the House of Commons, added that as part of the government’s commitment to research and development, it was increasing the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund by £1.1bn, “supporting technologies of the future”.
This is all very encouraging, but the budget also promised £150m to fund technology fellowships that attract “overseas tech talent to our shores”. The red book said: “To attract, retain and develop world-leading research talent, the government will invest up to £50m in new Turing AI Fellowships to bring the best global researchers in AI to the UK, and £100m in an international fellowship scheme”.
Artificial Intelligence may be the eye-catching technology of the moment, but the focus on investment in talent is timely. At CyberHive, where we work in close partnership with the University of Oxford, we know more than anyone that our best universities are a hugely important source of inspiration, innovation and practical applications. Anything that boosts that creativity and access to genuine talent is to be welcomed. We must hope that some of this extra government funding finds its way into education so that as a nation we can train a new generation of engineers who can help protect all UK organisations and businesses from proliferating cyber threats. At least the extra money announced should give added impetus to the creation of new standards and a set of best-practices in cyber security.
We certainly need to address the looming skills gap in cyber security. According to one estimate, the world will be short of 1.8 million cyber security workers by 2022. The UK will not be immune. We face a real shortage of talent in this sector and it is vital we do all we can to nurture native skills and attract the most gifted individuals we can from all corners of the globe.
Earlier this year, MPs took the government to task for failing to tackle the shortage of skilled cyber security personnel. They took their stance because increasing numbers of decision-makers realise that bridging the skills gap has become a matter of urgency, given the ever-expanding amount of malign activity by state-sponsored organisations. These attacks target the UK’s major businesses and critical infrastructure organisations and are becoming far more sophisticated and diverse, employing a level of subtlety and technological expertise that would have been unavailable to criminals just a few years ago.
What else was good about the budget? Well, £121m was allocated “to support the transformation of manufacturing through digitally-enabled technologies, such as the internet of things (IoT) and virtual reality”. The Chancellor also said the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) would be augmented to £38bn by 2023-24. Some £200m from the NPIF will be used to pilot “innovative approaches in deploying full-fibre internet in rural locations”, beginning with primary schools.
That certainly is a good idea, because the urban-rural divide in connectivity bedevils even the most advanced nations. It is a tough challenge that will require plenty of innovative thinking. The end-goal, however, is highly laudable. If we are to give the rising generations a genuinely digital-first mindset, they will need access to the best quality connectivity from an early age – which will definitely have to be in primary and quite possibly, infant schools.
Anything that boosts our pool of digital and cyber security talent is to be applauded. We have immense potential in the UK, but it needs to be nurtured and stimulated. At least the Budget made some progress in the right direction.