Science-friendly budget poses tough questions for UK research

Spending commitments on Aria, Horizon Europe and UKRI should be welcomed – as should the Treasury’s growing scrutiny of UK and EU research structures, says John Womersley

October 29, 2021

In advance of Rishi Sunak’s budget announcements this week the science community was in something approaching panic mode: the fevered consensus was that the government was about to renege on its commitments to increase research and development (R&D) spending.

Critics accused the chancellor of abandoning any hope of making the UK a “science superpower’’, even that he had given up on economic growth.  We may never know whether frenzied last-minute lobbying changed minds in 11 Downing Street, or whether the whole thing was never in question, but the end result is something of an anticlimax. 

Sunak, ever the prudent spreadsheet man, has maintained R&D spending on a clear upward trajectory, albeit one that reaches the promised £22 billion per year a couple of years later than anticipated. This is not at all a bad outcome – it makes some kind of sense that two years of emergency Covid spending would delay the R&D commitment by roughly the same length of time.

In fact, I see this as a very positive budget outcome for science. There are modest but real-terms increases for core research in UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a more substantial uplift for Innovate UK, and, for the first time, budgeted spending lines for the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) and for association to Horizon Europe that make it clear these new commitments will not come out of any existing spending. All this should be most welcome and it would be hoped that the science community will react helpfully – I have a feeling that ministers can be a bit disappointed that the positive feedback they receive when they do a good thing never matches the negative feedback they get in advance based on the fear that they might not.

Now, as always at times like this there are some other signals coming out of government that we need to be aware of.  First, it’s great that more than a billion pounds has been set aside in the budget to cover the costs of association to Horizon Europe. 

But signing any association agreement has been placed on hold by the European Union as part of the ongoing dispute with the UK government over the Northern Ireland protocol. (The EU seems to be playing hardball with the Swiss too – so this isn’t just about Brexit.) In any case, we now hear rumours that the Treasury is starting to wonder whether this £1 billion couldn’t better be spent on UK programmes targeted to the kind of actions that UK institutions really valued in Horizon Europe – especially the activities in the so-called “excellence pillar”, such as the European Research Council and student programmes. 

This is only about 20 per cent of the total, since the bulk of Horizon Europe funding will go to mission and challenge-led activities with a strong applied focus and a big emphasis on industrial collaboration where the UK hasn’t historically been hugely successful. The research community had prioritised association to Horizon Europe ever since the 2016 Brexit referendum, but when it was announced as part of the withdrawal agreement in 2020 there was barely a murmur of appreciation. I suspect government noticed that. So it’s a good question to ponder – which would we rather have, full association or an additional billion pounds per year?   

Second, it appears that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) will be reviewing the cost effectiveness and strategy of UKRI.  A review probably makes sense given that it is now five years since UKRI was set up and it’s good to ask how things are working out. But Sir Paul Nurse’s review of the wider research landscape will cover a lot of that territory too, and this looks a bit more targeted.

My hunch is that BEIS is becoming concerned – as are many in the research community – about the growing number of staff in UKRI’s central functions, which now number something like a thousand people. This is a huge increase in staffing numbers compared with the old research councils and must come at significant annual cost.

Presumably these people are intended to deliver UKRI-wide analysis and strategies for BEIS, but I think the landscape has shifted since UKRI was established. Back then, BEIS was trying to slim down and it made sense to plan to outsource policy, strategy and analysis tasks to UKRI. Now, however, with science at the heart of government’s commitments and with science spending seen as a key part of the levelling up agenda and hence of winning the next election, the last thing a minister would want to do is outsource these tasks. 

So, of course, BEIS itself is still doing these things despite having set up new structures in UKRI to do them too. Not a recipe for success – and any money that can be saved by making UKRI more efficient and slimmer means more money for research, which is surely a good outcome.

So, all in all, the science community expected a bad budget; we got a good one and we should be happy with that.  And at the same time government has set a couple of excellent homework questions for the coming months – what do we want from that £1 billion that’s been set aside for Horizon Europe, and what do we want from UKRI?

John Womersley is former chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council and former director general of the European Spallation Source, a research facility based in Sweden.

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Reader's comments (1)

There is much sense here. UKRI head office is bloated and duplicative. I cant believe the Nurse review envisaged 1000 head count over and above the old RCUK function. 1000 posts a year saving would have real impact in science. I voted, argued for and supported the remain campaign. I lost the argument. I vote for the party that is the most committed to take us back in and I hope we go back in in the future as soon as possible. However, we are where we are. There are better prizes than Horizon (under just return), we can and should manage this budget in the UK. Far better to push for scientists (students to professors) to easily work between UK and EU post Brexit and find ways to establish joint grants with ERC etc as we do with NSF.

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