UK R&D spend ‘should match countries that invest the most’

New research, endorsed by former prime minister Tony Blair, says UK needs to increase budget by a quarter to tackle ‘incoherent’ system

June 4, 2024
An official inspects the target during the Archery Ranking Round  in London, England to illustrate UK R&D spend ‘should match countries that invest the most’
Source: Paul Gilham/Getty Images

The UK government’s spending on research and development should be ring-fenced by law so that it is in the same league as that of the countries that invest the most in innovation, according to a report.

If implemented, the recommendation – included in research endorsed by former prime minister Tony Blair – could raise the UK’s R&D spending from its current level of 2.9 per cent of gross domestic product to 4.2 per cent.

This was the average outlay as a percentage of GDP in 2021 of Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, the US and Belgium – the five biggest R&D investors of that year – and the Council on Geostrategy says the UK should benchmark its budget every year to how much the highest spenders had committed the year before.

The council’s report, British Science and Technology in 2024: Implications for net zero, published on 4 June, says funding for R&D should be prioritised “above and beyond other areas of government spending”.

The thinktank, which is backed by a number of prominent MPs and peers, warns that Britain’s future prosperity, strategic advantage, defence and environmental security are directly dependent on its scientific and technological capabilities – as is the government’s ambition to reach net zero.

Mann Virdee, senior research fellow at the council and lead author of the report, told Times Higher Education that Britain’s self-image as a science superpower “rests more on past achievements than its current capabilities”.

“The death knell of British science and technology has been sounded before – but the UK now really is being left behind,” he added.

“Britain has had many recent plans for growth and ministers for science, but they have not resulted in a proper industrial strategy or detailed road map for science and technology.”

Dr Virdee said the next government would need to act urgently to regain its edge in innovation after having failed to invest in R&D over recent decades.

Based on the results of a survey of more than 60 scientists, policymakers and policy experts, Dr Virdee identified several key shortcomings that the UK will need to address if it is serious about maintaining or increasing its capabilities in science and technology – among them short-term funding, risk aversion and a skills gap.

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The report, which was part of the Caudwell Strong Britain research project, commissioned by business leader and philanthropist John Caudwell, warns that the country’s current approach has been “too piecemeal and suffered from frequent churn”.

As the UK is the only major economy without a proper industrial strategy, the report recommends that the next government develop a “coherent cross-departmental roadmap” to unlock prosperity through science and technology.

The council calls for reform of current expensive visa arrangements, which, it says, deter top international researchers and risk economic damage to the UK and its higher education sector.

Further recommendations include liberalising planning laws to allow scientific infrastructure to be built more quickly, legislation to prevent key businesses being sold to foreign competitors and more support for scale-ups.

In the foreword to the report, Mr Blair says: “The government’s lack of a coherent vision for science and technology, the shortage of investment, and brain drain are serious threats to the UK’s reputation and standing as a global hub for science and technology, and a country serious about the green transition.”

The UK was also criticised for lagging in a range of other areas, including computational power, the adoption of robots and the take-up of new technologies more broadly.

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