UK research shortfall still £1 billion, says Royal Society head

Sir Adrian Smith tells MPs that scientists must redouble efforts to win European grants to offset huge drop in science funding

April 21, 2021
Source: University of London

Britain’s science base faces a funding shortfall of close to £1 billion a year following cuts to aid-related research, lower spending by medical research charities and diminished success in winning European Union research funds, the president of the Royal Society has warned.

Sir Adrian Smith, who has led the UK’s most prestigious learned society since November, told the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee on 21 April that he was deeply concerned about the “really quite substantial sum” of “going on for £1 billion” that has been lost from a combination of government cuts, the pandemic and uncertainty over the country’s association to Horizon Europe.

About £400 million of this reduction related to the government’s decision to slash funding for grants provided by the UK’s foreign aid budget, while some £300 million had been lost from science funding after medical charities scaled back their spending plans following the Covid-enforced suspension of mass fundraising activities and the closure of charity shops, Sir Adrian explained.

“There is around £700 million that is not in the current system,” Sir Adrian told MPs.

However, Sir Adrian was also concerned that the uncertainty over the UK’s participation in the EU’s science initiative Horizon Europe since the Brexit referendum in 2016 had dented enthusiasm among UK researchers to make funding bids, resulting in fewer scientists winning grants.

“At one point, we were getting about 16 per cent [of Horizon 2020 funds] overall – that had drifted down to 10 per cent due to uncertainty,” said Sir Adrian, who added that it was vital to begin “stimulating the [scientific] community get in there and secure funds”.

According to Universities UK, UK higher education institutions received £5.1 billion from the seven-year Horizon 2020 initiative, coordinating 4,094 projects and participating in 7,349 projects.

With the UK government set to contribute about £1 billion in Horizon Europe’s first year, rising to as much as £2 billion in later years, Sir Adrian said it would be important to “monitor how we are doing in Horizon Europe” given that the UK’s success in winning funds could not be guaranteed from the excellence-based allocations.

“The government is assuming we will do as well as in the past; [but] if we do worse, then there will be a funding gap,” he said, adding that, taken with other cuts, this amounted to a “really quite substantial sum – going on for £1 billion”.

Sir Adrian was also asked by the committee’s chair, Greg Clark, about whether he was satisfied that domestic research budgets would not be raided to pay for the £1 billion cost of Horizon Europe membership given that the promised extra £650 million did not cover the full amount.

The government’s commitment was “very difficult to unpick, but in the short term, that worry has gone away”, he said, adding that he was “not absolutely sure” that this was the case.

The committee also heard from Hilary Reynolds, chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities, who revealed that the group’s members had suffered a “catastrophic loss of income” over the past year that amounted to £292 million.

Ms Reynolds explained that half of the group’s charities expected to make further budget cuts in the next year despite the reopening of charity shops. She also said a third of charities had cancelled projects, with 20 per cent of clinical trials still on hold or cancelled after their suspension during the pandemic.

The Brain Tumour Charity had cancelled its next two grant rounds after forecasting reductions of £5.5 million over the next few years, while the autism charity Autistica had scrapped its early career researcher training programme altogether, said Ms Reynolds.

“I could give dozens and dozens of similar stories – we need to recognise that medical research charities are not simply ‘nice to have’; they are an essential part of the system,” she said. “Let us avoid a long Covid shadow on research – there is still time to help our researchers.”

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