The UK government will invest an extra £2 billion per year in research and development by 2020, Prime Minister Theresa May has announced at the Confederation of British Industry’s annual conference.
A new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund will be overseen by the yet-to-be establish UK Research and Innovation to back technologies in fields where the UK has the chance to excel, such as robotics and biotechnology.
Ms May said the money was to ensure that British businesses remain at the cutting edge of scientific discovery and came as part of a modern and ambitious industrial strategy.
She said that the new strategy was about “making the most of the historic opportunity we now have to signal an important, determined change”.
Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, said that science and innovation were among the UK’s strengths and key to the future. "By placing them at the heart of our industrial strategy the prime minister is setting out a progressive vision for a country where the fruits of knowledge can spur economic growth and improve people's lives,” he added.
Details about the research funding remain unclear, but the government have called it “substantial real terms increases in government investment worth £2 billion per year”.
David Roblin, chief operating officer of the Francis Crick Institute, said that although the announcement was “light in specifics” it looked like “new money” for research and development. Dr Roblin called on Ms May to now signal a commitment to academic research as part of the Industrial Strategy.
“It would be good to hear from the prime minister about support for fundamental research in the wake of Brexit. It is essential to build further the UK's strength in academic research in order to enable a more successful industrial strategy - the two are interlinked,” he added.
Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said that he was “strongly encouraged” by the speech. “We know that the right support for the UK’s world-leading research and innovation, including fundamental science as well as its applications, will underpin economic growth and better health.”
“As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, it will also be critical to remain attractive to the international talent that science and innovation require,” he added.
The new Challenge Fund is designed to strengthen the commercialisation of new technology - an area where the UK has been traditionally weak as ideas developed here are often commercialised overseas.
The government will consult on how the fund can best support emerging areas where the UK has proven scientific strengths such as robotics, artificial intelligence, industrial biotechnology and medical technology, satellites and advanced materials manufacturing.
Ruth McKernan, chief executive of Innovate UK, said that the investment would help the country “realise commercial benefit from our world class research base”.
“We see this funding as a huge vote of confidence in the game changing opportunity for businesses right across the UK to foster a culture of innovation,” she added.
Lord John Krebs, professor of zoology at the University of Oxford and former principal of Jesus College, Oxford, said that as he understood it UKRI will have “considerable discretion over how the money will be spent, having regard for priority areas”.
Sarah Main, director the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said that Ms May’s commitments sent a “strong signal” to the rest of the world. “Where previous industrial strategies have floundered by failing to fully engage industry or provide necessary resource, it seems that this time industry and government are ready to work hand-in-hand."
Ms May also announced that the government will review how the government supports research organisations through the tax system.