UK R&D investment: value for money, but too little money?

New UCL professor Graeme Reid, formerly BIS’ head of research funding, points to public support for science investment

June 5, 2014

Source: Alamy

Half empty? Funding could rise by 50 per cent to match rivals such as the US

The UK’s current level of research spending is “strikingly below” rivals such as the US and Germany and could be increased by up to 50 per cent, according to a former government head of research funding.

Graeme Reid made the comments in his recent inaugural lecture as professor of science and research policy at University College London, a job he took up in April after leaving the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Professor Reid is widely seen as having played a major role in protecting the science budget at a time when almost all government departments suffered deep cuts as a result of the coalition government’s austerity programme.

The UK “has the highest citations per pound [of investment] in the G8”, Professor Reid said in the lecture, entitled “Why Should the Taxpayer Fund Science and Research?”

Professor Reid pointed to a highly skilled and scientifically informed labour force as “probably the largest benefit of all” from public spending on science and research. Although he acknowledged that 53 per cent of PhDs would go on to careers outside science, he added that “some call it ‘leakage’ or ‘failure’, but I call it ‘impact’”.

He went on to consider the role of research in improving public policy and public services, something he said is “sometimes underplayed compared to business”. A strong research base also helps to “attract R&D development from global business”, which looks for “talented people”, “high-quality science” and the “ease of working with universities” when deciding where to locate research facilities.

There is good evidence of public support for “blue-skies” as well as applied research, said Professor Reid, citing an Ipsos Mori poll indicating that 35 per cent of the public strongly agreed (and 43 per cent more tended to agree) that “even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research which advances knowledge should be funded by the government”.

Only 3 per cent, in contrast, strongly agreed that “government funding for science should be cut because the money can be better spent elsewhere”.

Professor Reid observed that although public money given to science and research now amounts to “£3 a week for each person in the UK”, international comparisons suggest that this is “basically an unremarkable level of expenditure” and “strikingly below some of the countries we like to emulate”.

He concluded his talk by asking whether it was “time to reappraise the level of scientific funding in the UK”, perhaps boosting it by one-third or even half to match our American and German competitors.

When asked by a member of the audience about the potential impact of any significant future cuts in science funding, Professor Reid responded that “we would need to think if we could continue to be excellent in everything – because we can’t afford to be average in everything”.

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