UK boosts research budget but fails to confirm £22 billion target

Chancellor’s spending review research boost leaves questions around earlier promises, as funds committed for Erasmus replacement

November 25, 2020
Downing Street

Rishi Sunak has set out plans for the UK government to increase research and development spending by £1.4 billion a year by 2023-24, but failed to confirm whether its pledge to hit total spending of £22 billion by the following year will be met.

The government’s one-year spending review, announced on 25 November, set out a multi-year settlement for research to aid long-term planning – which had been a key request from research leaders.

Mr Sunak – who did not mention the government’s Further Education White Paper and response to the Augar review of post-18 education, which had been thought to be imminent – said that the research investment would make the UK a “scientific superpower”.

In 2017, the government committed to spending 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development spending within 10 years.

And the Conservative manifesto at the 2019 election pledged to double research and development spending to £18 billion by 2024-25 – a pledge exceeded by Mr Sunak in his March 2020 budget when he said that it would hit £22 billion by that year.

The Treasury spending review document published alongside Mr Sunak’s speech says that “by 2023-24 the government will be investing £1.4 billion more per year in core funding for its world-leading research base”.

When it comes to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – which is responsible for the bulk of the research budget – the spending review document details spending for Dominic Cummings’ planned “high-risk high-pay off” research agency of £300 million by 2024-25, along with £600 million for net zero programmes.

But no figure is given for the BEIS “core research” budget in 2024-25, with the Treasury document confining itself to a figure of £5.8 billion in 2023-24, up from £4.8 billion in 2021-22.

However, those figures are for BEIS only, and do not take into account research and development spending via other departments.

The Treasury document says that BEIS “has been allocated £11.1 billion R&D funding (out of an overall government R&D package of £14.6 billion)”, which includes an “uplift of over £400 million on average per year until 2023-24 for core UK Research and Innovation science”, plus “at least £490 million in 2021-22 for Innovate UK core programmes and infrastructure to support ground-breaking technologies and businesses”.

On Brexit and research, the spending review document says: “Negotiations over the UK’s future relationship with the EU, including Horizon [the EU’s research programme], are still ongoing. Whatever the outcome of those negotiations, the government is committed to maintaining and enhancing the UK’s position at the forefront of global science collaboration.”

However, on the EU’s Erasmus+ student mobility programme, the Treasury did say that the Department for Education’s spending review settlement “provides funding to prepare for a UK-wide domestic alternative to Erasmus+, in the event that the UK no longer participates in Erasmus+, to fund outward global education mobilities. The government will set out further details in due course.”

Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at UCL, said: “This is a very difficult time to have a spending review: a few weeks before the relationship with the EU is settled – one way or another – and with Covid creating unpredictable pressure on public spending. It comes as no surprise that increases in science are lower than announced earlier this year. 

“Does this mean the £22 billion commitment and the 2.4 per cent commitment have been ditched? I can’t tell. I suspect we must wait another year before we get a spending review that sets a longer agenda.”

Professor Reid noted that “we need to wait for details from government departments [beyond BEIS] before we can work out the overall budget for R&D”.

Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, said that “based on what we’ve seen in the document today either science budget increases will have to be heavily back-loaded – which is after all the default UK government way of doing things” in 2024-25, “or the non-BEIS, non-science budget” for research and development in other departments “will have to grow a lot to deliver the £22 billion by 2024-25”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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