Research cuts risk remains despite assurances, UK sector warned

Ex-minister George Freeman urges sector to ‘mobilise’ to show R&D key to growth, despite securing Treasury commitment not to cut science budget

October 17, 2022

Conservative former science minister George Freeman has warned that cuts to UK research spending, including for association to Horizon Europe, will remain a risk if the government “ploughs on with unfunded tax cuts”, despite securing Treasury commitment not to cut the science budget.

After the Liz Truss government’s “mini-budget” series of unfunded tax giveaways alarmed the markets, analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested that funding those plans through public spending reductions would necessitate cuts of about £60 billion.

But with Ms Truss telling MPs she will “absolutely” not cut spending, ministers offered a series of guarantees on research and development funding, following rumours that there could be backtracking on 2021 spending review pledges to increase research spending to £20 billion by 2024-25 and £22 billion by 2026-27 – major increases from £9 billion in 2019. The spending review also set aside £6.9 billion a year until 2025 for association to the European Union’s Horizon Europe research programme, or for a domestic “Plan B” replacement if association did not happen – sums as yet unspent.

UK-EU talks on association remain halted after Brussels tied the issue to resolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol impasse.

In response to a House of Commons question from Mr Freeman, asking for a commitment that ministers would not be “tempted to reduce” allocations for Horizon or research more widely, the economic secretary to the Treasury, Richard Fuller, said the government would “abide by the spending review 2021 decisions: that includes…association to Horizon Europe, and for Aria”, the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency.

Mr Freeman told Times Higher Education: “Whilst I was pleased to secure the Treasury commitment…not to cut the science budget, if the government ploughs on with unfunded tax cuts and the markets demand £40 billion of spending ‘savings’, there is a real risk that HMT [Treasury] will look to the science and infrastructure budgets for big-ticket savings.

“The £14 billion put aside for Horizon could be an easy grab. This would be a huge mistake. But it’s a risk.”

Mr Freeman was speaking prior to the sacking of Kwasi Kwarteng as chancellor and the reversal of a proposed cut in corporation tax, although this left significant uncertainty over the future direction that would be taken by Jeremy Hunt, Mr Kwarteng’s successor.

The sector needed to “mobilise to show why R&D is key to growth, innovation, inward investment, productivity and levelling-up”, Mr Freeman added.

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 on Horizon association: “When I look at the rhetoric, I see essentially the same line of thought [in the Truss government as under the Johnson government]: that the preference is to associate with Horizon, money has been set aside and if we take the…confirmations of the spending review at face value, then that money remains intact.”

But he added: “The EU has continued to decline any overtures from the UK…You can’t leave billions of pounds sitting in a cupboard forever. It’s just inevitable that the government will reach a decision either to move to Plan B, or indeed put the money to some other use, if the EU continues to take that position.”

On funding for higher education teaching, the government may have more limited scope for cuts given that only earlier this year it announced a series of major changes to student loans – constituting the vast bulk of public spending on higher education – hitting future and current borrowers. Securing major savings by limiting student numbers would be difficult and likely politically damaging.

Sir David Bell, the University of Sunderland vice-chancellor and former Department for Education permanent secretary, said: “In such a period of economic turmoil and uncertainty, it is vital that ministers engage in mature and honest discussions with universities, without the ‘smoke and mirrors’ approach where ministers seek to mask what is really going on by, for example, re-announcing the amount available over and over again.”

He added that any cuts would be “incredibly short-sighted as any economic strategy with growth at its heart will require a high-performing and properly-funded universities sector”.

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