R&D faces a Pounds 2bn shortfall

May 26, 2000

An additional Pounds 2 billion needs to be pumped into research and development to put the United Kingdom on a par with competitor nations, according to two damning reports.

One report, by the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University, says that UK R&D investment in 1997 needed to rise by 67 per cent to match per capita levels in the United States. This is based on figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In 1997-98 the Office of Science and Technology's expenditure on higher education research was nearly Pounds 1.9 billion. To have achieved parity with the US, the UK would have needed to increase research spending by Pounds 1.3 billion. The US increased research spending this year by 10.4 per cent.

The Spru report also condemns UK industry for its continued under-investment in R&D compared with OECD competitors. Department of Trade and Industry figures show that while almost half of manufacturing companies think university research is fairly important to them, only 11 per cent had formal collaborative links with universities.

A second report, by Policy Research in Engineering, Science and Technology and the Centre for Applied Social Research, both at Manchester University, says that an additional Pounds 600 million is required just to refit research laboratories with modern equipment.

Both reports, commissioned by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, will make grim reading for the government, which has prided itself on its Pounds 1.4 billion investment in the UK's science and research base over the three years from 1999 and 2002. Almost all this money went on upgrading science infrastructure.

The reports, both updates of studies done in 1996, have been submitted to the government in the hope that they will bolster the case for further substantial investment in science and research in the next spending review, the results of which are due to be announced in July.

CVCP chief executive Baroness Warwick said: "The research funding increases introduced in the last spending review were welcome, but more is needed. The UK is in danger of squandering the research potential of our universities if further investment is not forthcoming."

Ammon Salter, one of the authors of the Spru report, said: "Pounds 1.4 billion seems like a lot of money, but it was partly to allow the UK to catch up from a very low investment base in the 1980s and early 1990s. But, of course, the rest of the world has not stood still and effectively the UK is treading water."

The Spru report says: "The current relatively low level of UK investment in publicly funded research hampers the ability of the UK to participate in the global knowledge-driven economy.

"The funding gap between the UK and the leaders of the OECD has been growing over the past ten years and only considerable investments will halt this pattern of decline. Even maintaining its position among the lower band of OECD countries will require more investment."

The Prest/CASR report says that two-thirds of departments surveyed were unable to carry out critical experiments due to a lack of equipment. It also shows that 60 per cent of equipment cannot deliver leading-edge research and that Pounds 800 million-worth of top-rated bids to the Joint Infrastructure Fund were left unfilled.

The report says: "The more complex picture painted by the update snapshot suggests that continuing funding problems mean that departments are often forced to patch up and keep going items that they had expected to be out of use by now. The key funding issue is generic research equipment and the battered concept of the well-found laboratory."

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