Plan to ‘level up’ UK research funding ‘unambitious’

Comparison with current data suggests government proposals are ‘not exactly a revolution in the funding balance’, say experts

February 4, 2022

Plans to “level up” research spending across the UK by ensuring that public investment outside the south-east grows by 40 per cent by 2030 might not be as radical as ministers have indicated, policy experts have warned.

In its long-awaiting Levelling Up White Paper, the UK government outlined commitments by multiple departments to increase their research and development (R&D) spending in the regions at a faster rate than in those areas around London, Oxford and Cambridge.

But the headline announcement that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which distributes money to the country’s research councils, will spend at least 55 per cent of its R&D budget outside the south-east by 2024-25 was unlikely to change significantly the regional balance of spending, observed James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, who pointed out that latest estimates suggested that 54 per cent of overall government investment went outside the south-east.

“If BEIS ratios map on to wider government R&D ratios, this would then mean a proportional 1 per cent increase by 2025 – not exactly a revolution in the funding balance,” said Professor Wilsdon.

The 40 per cent uplift by 2030 “doesn’t strike me as overly ambitious, and doesn’t necessarily require any big shift in regional distribution”, he added, given that already announced increases in overall research funding would lead to national uplifts of about 25 per cent to 30 per cent in real terms by 2025.

Kieron Flanagan, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, agreed that the BEIS uplift “doesn’t appear to be very ambitious”.

“You could interpret this as a commitment not to let funding get any more concentrated in the greater south-east,” said Professor Flanagan, who said he would welcome “putting a hard floor on concentration…provided it is a long-term commitment”.

“The last thing we need is a funding boom outside the golden triangle [London, Oxford and Cambridge] now followed by a bust later down the line, when the golden triangle science lobbies reassert themselves. So to have any actual effect on levelling-up, these commitments would need to be the start of a new approach, one that lasts beyond the spending review period and this Parliament,” he said.

The mention that the Department of Health and the NHS would seek to rebalance medical research away from the south-east would be a “significant development” given that their “spending is also very highly concentrated” in that area, Professor Flanagan added.

Graeme Reid, professor of science and research policy at UCL, said he was heartened by research’s central role in the levelling-up agenda.

“This is, however, the latest in a long line of attempts to use R&D for regional development – far too many of them have started with great fanfare but not lasted long enough to make a difference,” he continued.

He also cautioned against having “regional quotas for part of the R&D budget”, which, “if this overrides research excellence, will not serve anyone at all and may depress national performance overall”.

Professor Reid – who has examined how research and development funding previously distributed from the European Union using structural funds might be allocated after Brexit under the banner of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, worth £2.6 billion annually – added that universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might also be concerned by the White Paper’s promise that this fund will be “decentralised to local leaders as far as possible, with investments set to regenerate communities, boost people’s skills, and support local businesses”.

“Will any of this end up in R&D?” asked Professor Reid, who said these funds had “delivered enormous benefit” after being distributed to regional research centres and universities.

Meanwhile, Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher, which represents the capital’s universities, said the plans to direct R&D investment outside the greater south-east region were “akin to shutting the door on the capital and risk overlooking London’s world-leading research base, which benefits the entire country”.

However, Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, welcomed the report, stating: “Investment in research and innovation is key to long-term economic growth, and the UK has outstanding universities, research institutes and innovative businesses all over the country.”

Nonetheless, he warned, “the investment needs to be new and not just a repackaging of old money”.

“We also cannot afford to ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ by investing in some localities at the expense of world-leading research in already hugely successful research clusters,” Sir Adrian said.

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