Clark to PM: don’t fiddle the figures on science spending pledge

Commons committee chair also raises concerns about UKRI chair’s lobbying of ministers ahead of spending review

October 22, 2021
A 10 penny falls arcade machine with focus on the line about to fall. Weston Super Mare, UK.
Source: iStock

A leading MP has warned ministers against fiddling the figures as speculation mounts about an “immensely damaging” downgrading of the UK’s commitment to invest £22 billion a year in research and development by 2024-25.

Greg Clark, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, also raised concerns that Sir Andrew Mackenzie, the chair of the umbrella body for the country’s research councils, might not push the government hard enough to secure the funding pledge.

The interventions came in a series of letters fired off by Mr Clark to prime minister Boris Johnson, chancellor Rishi Sunak and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng – as well as Sir Andrew, chair of UK Research and Innovation – following a meeting of the Commons committee earlier this week, which heard concerns that the government might seek to water down the £22 billion commitment in next week’s spending review.

In the letter to Cabinet members, Mr Clark warns that a “sudden downgrade or deferral” of the £22 billion pledge would be “immensely damaging” to long-term research plans and the government’s stated ambition of making the UK a “science superpower”.

If the commitment is “abruptly reversed, this will cause great actual and reputational damage to private sector investments”, Mr Clark says, adding that at a time when other leading nations were investing in science it was “bewildering to think that the UK would not see this as an investment that is essential to our future prosperity just as our competitors do”.

On “important matters of detail”, Mr Clark says that funding announcements at the spending review must use a “comparable baseline”, highlighting that when the 2024-25 target was set it did not include money that was given through research and development tax credits.

“If the Government were to include the value of tax credits when measuring the total value of R&D spending per year, it must adjust the baseline and the target to reflect this and to avoid the risk of figures being misleading,” Mr Clark writes.

Mr Clark adds that if research funding from the overall target is allocated directly to individual government departments, “it must be clear that it cannot be diverted to other departmental work”.

In the letter to Sir Andrew, who was appointed this summer, Mr Clark writes that his committee looks to the UKRI chair “to stand up for what is required by UKRI and by UK science and research”.

“This may involve some challenging, robust and forensic discussions with ministers and officials in these final days to secure the public investment needed,” Mr Clark says.

“In this context, we were concerned by the implications of your statement to the committee that ‘I do want them to realise that I will be a loyal servant’.”

In a statement, Mr Clark said that the next week would be “pivotal” for UK science.

“Our leading global competitors are making big long-term bets that science and innovation is essential to their future prosperity. When it was elected in 2019 the government was bold and visionary in committing to double the science budget to £22 billion by 2024-25. It is more important than ever to keep faith with that commitment for this Parliament not to abandon it or delay it,” he said.

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