Russell Group wants £4 billion hike in UK research spend by 2030

Westminster government must match ambitious rhetoric with increased investment to keep pace with competition, says mission group’s manifesto

November 9, 2023
Houses of parliament
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The UK government must spend an additional £4 billion a year on research to meet its long-term commitment on science investment, the Russell Group has said.

Drawing on new analysis, the group of research-intensive universities said the extra science spending was required if ministers were to achieve its aim of spending at least 3 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development by 2029-30.

That would bring total public R&D spending to £24 billion, up from £20 billion in 2024-25, with the extra public spending likely to attract some £4 billion in private investment, said the group.

It also called on all political parties to commit to a stretch target of investing 3.5 per cent of GDP in R&D by 2034, which would bring the UK closer to competitor countries, such as the US, Germany and South Korea.

The call follows concern that political pressure to increase science spending has reduced substantially after it emerged last year that the UK had achieved its target of spending 2.4 per cent of GDP on research five years earlier than planned.

That target – outlined in the 2019 Conservative manifesto – was hit after the Office for National Statistics revised the way it estimates non-public research spending. The “methodological improvements” resulted in a 60 per cent uplift to private R&D spending, equivalent to £16 billion a year.

Universities and research funders are keen to ensure that the issue of science spending features in party manifestos being drawn up ahead of a general election next year. Science minister George Freeman has suggested there should be a new R&D investment target for the UK of 3.5 per cent of GDP by 2033, while Labour has called for a long-term and strategic approach to R&D policy, including a 10-year funding settlement.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said a “long-term commitment to be a global leader in R&D investment would harness the potential of our world-leading research-intensive universities and maximise the positive impact they have in every corner of the UK”.

“To make this a reality we need sustained public funding that will leverage significant wider private investment, to take us to 3 per cent of GDP and beyond,” said Dr Bradshaw.

The new analysis, published on 9 November, is accompanied by the group’s own manifestoA Bright Future, which details key areas where universities and the next government can cooperate on R&D capacity and training.

It calls for an additional £80 million investment each year in the Higher Education Innovation Fund, which it says would deliver an economic return of nearly £1 billion.

In addition, it urges the creation of a new £400 million Spark Fund to support hundreds of new deep-tech spinouts from universities that would also deliver returns of £1 billion, alongside a £25 million-a-year UK Research Security Fund, which would help universities to protect intellectual property from malign foreign interference.

It also calls for the creation of a new 2030 International Education Strategy with a “supportive visa system alongside the current graduate visa”. This would replace the current strategy, whose goal of attracting 600,000 students a year by 2030 was achieved 10 years early, with some believing that goal has now become an unofficial cap on numbers that has led to a tightening of student visa restrictions.

Chris Day, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University and chair of the Russell Group, said universities were “look[ing] forward to working closely with the next government and utilising our strength in R&D to provide the solutions that will build a bright and prosperous future for the UK”.

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