Give us dates, say leaders as £22 billion pledge hangs in balance

Sector heads call for Westminster government to stick to science spending pledge and set out how ministers will achieve it

October 20, 2021
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Science leaders have called for the Westminster government to set out concrete dates on how it will reach its science spending commitment of £22 billion by 2024-25.

Giving evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Sir John Kingman, former chair of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), said universities and research institutions “need clarity about budgets so we can plan long-term”.

The committee was taking evidence on what was required to fulfil plans for the UK to become a “science superpower” amid concerns that ministers might renege on their commitment to increase investment in the sector at next week’s spending review.

The £22 billion figure is part of the government’s commitment to investing 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product in research and development by 2027. This year’s figure is about £15 billion.

Sir John said that while he “would be surprised” if the government did not announce a big number, it would be important to be precise about when that money could be expected.

If the government were to announce a headline figure without exact dates, it would be “just wishful thinking”, but past experience had showed that the government “does have a tendency to put numbers out without specific years”, Sir John told the committee.

This was backed up by Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, who told the committee that if the funding promise was given just in general terms as “for the future”, it was an empty promise.

“Science has been underinvested in the UK for my whole life. If we had money, we would be absolutely spectacular at science,” Sir Paul said.

While noting that he was sure the government was in a difficult position financially, he said that if it did not invest in science, it would not be able to “reap from the field”.

“We need to invest money to get out of the mess,” he added. “We need a [science investment] strategy that is expansive, ambitious and exciting, not something just written by McKinsey – something that really understands science.”

Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, added that an outlay of 2.4 per cent of GDP for R&D was still below the average for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. “We are not talking about leapfrogging [other countries’ spending],” she said.

Dame Nancy added that it was important to get the spending strategy right because “R&D [projects] are not short-term endeavours. If we are to maintain commitment, we need the people to do that.”

She and others giving evidence highlighted that delays to the ratification of the UK’s participation in the next European Union Horizon research programme was impacting the UK’s ability to attract the best scientists or hindering British academics wishing to take part in important projects. “As long as there is uncertainty, there are problems,” Dame Nancy said.

Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, agreed. The delay in ratification was causing rising anxiety, and academics could not enter into procurement negotiations or recruitment under the cloud of uncertainty, he said.

Sir Adrian added that existing research funding must not be diverted to pay for Horizon Europe membership.

He explained that “there will be a signal sent at the end of spending review, and the nature and tone of that is fundamentally important” – not just for the research and science community, he said, but also to the private sector. “If we don’t have a clear signal the government is investing, we won’t get that leverage of private investment,” he added.

Sir Andrew Mackenzie, UKRI’s current chair, said he was confident that he had been given a “fair hearing” by the government when talking about investment in science, although he did add that “there is still quite a way to go from turning strategic aspirations to actual policy”. Sir Andrew also admitted that the recent cuts to overseas development aid had been “a tough pill to swallow”.

“The sooner [science spending] gets going on a monotonic gradient, the better,” he said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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