UK research spending target: show us the money, says Nobelist

‘Aspiration is not enough’, says Sir Paul Nurse of goal to spend 2.4 per cent of GDP on R&D

十一月 20, 2018
Source: iStock

One of the UK’s leading scientists has warned that aspiration alone is “not enough” to boost the country’s spending on research and development and that academics “need to know where the money is coming from”.

Addressing the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, said that the government’s target of spending 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development by 2027 – rising to 3 per cent in the longer term – was “a step in the right direction, but we really can’t say it’s that ambitious”.

The committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the balance and effectiveness of research and innovation spending in the UK, heard that, even if the 2.4 per cent target was hit within the next decade, by then the global average would have advanced further.

The UK has been “at the bottom of the G7 countries [for research and development spending] for years”, said Sir Paul, a Nobel prizewinning geneticist. “By the time we get to 2.4 [per cent] who knows where they will be. Aspiration is not enough: we need to know where the money is coming from.”

Kirsten Bound, executive director of research, analysis and policy for innovation charity Nesta, seconded that 2.4 per cent would take the UK to the “OECD average spend, and no country aspires to be average. It has to be a step on the way towards what we want to see.”

Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, added that the government “has not created a vision with what it wants from this increased R&D spend”. Both researchers and industry members needed further details on what “impact” the government hoped to see on a local as well as national scale, she said.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said that, given the “considerable scale of what is required” from both public and private sectors, universities and other stakeholders “need to see from the government’s side year-on-year increases towards that goal in the next spending review”.

A major part of the government industrial strategy is that, for every £1 of public money on research and development, private businesses will provide another £2 of investment. But a previous incentive to boost research and development spending in 2004 failed, Sir Paul noted, because the government had overestimated the level of interest likely to come from industry.

It was crucial for ministers to acknowledge that they “cannot force” industry spending, he added, and that they “need to put the levers in place to make sure that money will be forthcoming this time around”.

While the creation of the UK Research and Innovation umbrella body provided new opportunities to “take on strategy discussions”, Sir Paul said that a “strategic committee” was needed to take these issues into account.

“What was lacking in the previous structures was a failure of policy for science to be discussed,” said Sir Paul. “We need to earn the public trust and URKI has a role in that.”



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