Relief and disappointment as UK puts off £22 billion target

Sector expresses relief that investment will increase to £20 billion by end of parliament, but fears investment not enough to maintain ‘superpower’ aspiration

October 27, 2021
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UK research leaders have expressed both relief and disappointment after the UK government said that it planned to increase spending on research and development to £20 billion by 2024-25, rather than £22 billion as previously announced.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, said in his budget speech that the £22 billion target would now be reached in 2026-27, but experts cautioned that this commitment was largely irrelevant, because it would come after the next election, under a new parliament and possibly a new chancellor.

James Wilsdon, director of the Research on Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, said that set against the high bar of expectation the government set itself, the target pushback was “disappointing”.

However, overall, it was an “extremely good budget for research” and the details set out in the accompanying Treasury document made it “relatively clear” how the spending was going to be set out, which was helpful, he told Times Higher Education.

The document states that overall funding will increase by £1.3 billion to £16.1 billion by 2022-23, and then by £3.3bn to £19.4 billion in 2023-24, and £600 million to £20 billion in 2024-25.

The £3.3 billion increase was “unprecedented as a year-on-year increase” not seen in the past 25 years, he said.

Many others in the sector agreed. “Many in our community will be disappointed that the chancellor has moved the goalposts on the targets for investment in R&D, but we recognise we are in a challenging fiscal climate,” said Helen Pain, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Kieron Flanagan, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, told THE that the research community can’t be “too disappointed in this”. Assuming that the aim was always to spend much of the increase in new ways, for example, building up research capacity outside the “golden triangle” of London, Cambridge and Oxford, then the government “had arguably left it too late to be able to ramp up spending to the £22 billion level by 2024 without risking wasting money”, he said.

Daniel Rathbone, assistant director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said “the rest of the world is still powering ahead on R&D, so it is disappointing that the chancellor has had to delay the £22 billion target to 2026”.

“To achieve their stated ambition of investing 2.4 per cent per cent of GDP in R&D by 2027, the government will need to redouble its efforts to maintain business confidence and investment to ensure this goal becomes a reality,” he added.

Nancy Rothwell, chair of the Russell Group, said that “increasing funding in a consistent and predictable way like this will help to leverage in more private investment earlier, boost business confidence and ultimately help to set the UK on a course to meet its ambition” to reach 2.4 per cent.

According to the budget document, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will see the bulk of the uplift, getting £2.9 billion by the end of this parliament. This includes £1.1 billion for core research, which includes quality-related funding and funding for the national academies, near-doubling Innovate UK’s budget to £1.1 billion by 2024-25, and covering the costs of association to Horizon Europe.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, welcomed the latter, saying that the government had “listened to the sector in specifying that the full costs of joining the EU’s Horizon research funding scheme will be met. I hope that the current impasse in finalising the UK’s membership will be resolved quickly to give certainty to researchers.”

Professor Wilsdon added that it was “great” that the Horizon funding had been specifically set out. However, he said it offered the research community a “very tangible dilemma” because by confirming that the funding was on the table for science no matter what, it gave the sector the choice as to whether that money should be used for association, or if it would be better spent on funding on equivalent research activity.

“I think this spending review will at least force a fresh appraisal of the costs and benefits of participation versus other options,” he said.

Both Professor Wilsdon and Wellcome’s Sir Jeremy also welcomed the prospect of the UK returning to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income, and the potential for the rejuvenation of the Newton Fund and Global Challenges Research Fund grants if so.

The budget also confirmed a commitment to the Turing Scheme, which funds international education opportunities, for the next three years, including £110 million for the academic year 2022-23.

Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, said it was good to see that the government had listened to the science and business communities, which have argued for the “importance of science and innovation to the nation’s resilience and growth” over the past few months.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, added that “even after today’s announcement, the increase in spending is impressive, although in truth that is partly only because our starting point on research spending is so low compared with our competitors”.

“Overall, the new science minister [George Freeman] will need to work hard to allay concerns that we are seeing a diminution in the government’s commitment to science, research and technology, but it is not an impossible task,” he said.

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