Fears for UK research budget as Truss focuses on energy

‘Reprofiling’ of planned increase in spending and opting against association to Horizon Europe likely to be on table, predicts ex-minister

September 14, 2022
Fears for UK research budget  and Horizon Europe as Truss focuses on energy crisis
Source: Reuters

The advent of a new government led by Liz Truss spending big on energy and wrestling with economic turmoil has raised fears of threats to the UK’s research budget and any remaining hopes of it participating in Horizon Europe.

At the same time, sector leaders hope that the Truss government’s expected focus on the cost-of-living crisis will shift away from the last government’s attention on tackling “low-value” degrees via student number controls and minimum entry requirements, when many vice-chancellors think the ministerial priority should instead be in addressing student hardship.

Unspent funds in research that may appeal to a Treasury seeking cuts include the budget for potential association to Horizon Europe – stalled in a row with the European Commission over the Northern Ireland protocol, an issue where Ms Truss is a hardliner – and for a “Plan B” domestic replacement.

More broadly, the Boris Johnson government’s pledges for a big increase in research spending could come under pressure as the Truss administration seeks savings, perhaps via a new spending review, to help fund its plans to limit energy bills – which some suggest could cost the government up to £150 billion. The Johnson government had committed to investing 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product in research and development by 2027, and also to increasing research spending from £9 billion in 2019 to £20 billion by 2024-25, aiming for £22 billion by 2026-27.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone, the Conservative former universities minister, said: “There’s no doubt that the macro backdrop has worsened dramatically since the last government made its big and widely welcomed commitment to investment in the research base.”

While “defending that bold vision and the road map to deliver it is obviously the right call to make”, it would be “surprising if some reprofiling of the planned increase in public R&D spending and adopting a skinnier Plan B rather than a full fat Horizon Europe association for fiscal reasons alone, leaving aside all the other difficulties, were not in the mix of options” facing Kwasi Kwarteng, the new chancellor and former business secretary, he continued.

A big issue for higher education with the Truss government is the fact that it will be “spending so much money on energy commitments” and will have little capacity “to look beyond the current crises, none of which are going away soon”, said Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester and a former adviser in the Labour government.

“The good news is that the 2023-24 recruitment cycle isn’t far off – and [student] funding arrangements are basically frozen until the general election, so there’s not a huge amount that’s going to happen policy-wise in the meantime,” he added.

But on research, “the possibility of the spending review being reopened will have set nerves jangling given that there’s still a lot of unspent R&D funds knocking around the wider system”, said Professor Westwood.

With arch-Thatcherite and Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg installed as secretary of state in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, responsible for the research budget, there may be little appetite in the department to defend that budget against a Treasury raid; little appetite for using research spending as an element of industrial strategy or for the whole concept of industrial strategy; and little appetite for association to Horizon Europe. Commercialisation and applied research activities such as Innovate UK could be seen as being particularly vulnerable.

Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at UCL, who was asked by Whitehall to devise the UK Horizon “Plan B” alongside Royal Society president Sir Adrian Smith, said that he hoped the new government “can resolve the UK’s position on Horizon quickly so we can either associate with the European Union programme or move to Plan B.  We are currently in the worst of all positions with a large amount of money committed to either Horizon or Plan B but sitting unspent.”

Professor Reid added: “Research and innovation are the sources of future wealth and well-being. New pressure on public spending strengthens the case for investment in research and innovation, reinforcing the need for the larger research budgets announced by the government last year.”

Professor Westwood said that overall “the next two years are probably going to be more about preparing ideas for the general election and the next Parliament” on a new university funding solution for England, given warnings from universities on how the continuing tuition fee freeze is cutting their funding. “The current HE funding system might just make it to the beginning [of the next Parliament], but it sure as hell isn’t going to be much use by the end,” he added.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Fears for UK research budget  and Horizon Europe as Truss focuses on energy crisis

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