UK science minister wants multi-year research funding framework

Chris Skidmore tells Tory conference meeting he wants UK research funding to emulate EU’s approach

October 1, 2019

The UK’s universities and science minister has said that he wants to create a five-year financial framework programme to fund research with strategic missions “centred” inside it, similar to the European Union’s system, to promote public understanding of the benefits of research funding.

The EU’s research programmes run for seven years and aim to address particular social challenges.

Chris Skidmore told a fringe meeting on research at the Conservative party conference on 30 September that there was a “disconnect between the funding going out of the door to fund a project” and public recognition of the benefits of that funding.

The “frustrations of turning on the Today programme to hear this latest discovery’s been made or invention created but with no understanding of how that came to be funded” were “perennial” in government, the minister told the meeting, hosted by the Royal Society, the British Academy and other learned societies.

The minister added that Boris Johnson, the prime minister, had spoken at a business lunch that day at which he “gave an incredibly strong case for investing in science and universities”.

But Mr Skidmore referred to the “plethora” of funding pots within the government’s industrial strategy, “and that’s aside, obviously, from all the research council funding”.

He said that having returned to the universities and science brief after a seven-week sojourn as a health minister, there were “two clear lessons that I now want to try and resolve”.

First, in light of the fact that “the centre [of government] seems to be keen to further investment in science and R&D”, he would like to explore “how can we ensure public perception follows the money, as it were” and “how can we potentially create a more sustainable approach to funding?”

Rather than an annual funding settlement, “maybe over a five-year period we could have an increase in the science budget that is not just a monetary increase”, he suggested.

“One of the great selling points of the EU Horizon programme is that it’s very visible and understandable to the public,” said Mr Skidmore. “People know where the money has come from and what it’s being spent on.”

He added that he was interested in considering the question of “if we’re going to look at increasing the science and research budget for the longer term, how can we do so in a structured, sustainable way that might also create a multi-[year] financial framework where the public can say, ‘that came from that particular pot’.”

The minister referred to “having an overarching framework programme like they have in the EU”. He added that “my ambition and the government’s ambition is still to associate into Horizon Europe”.

“But we want to go further,” he continued. “The prime minister has been very clear he wants to go further in a number of areas.”

A framework programme approach could “begin to create more missions”, Mr Skidmore said, outlining his second priority. There is currently a mission-based approach in some research funding, but there was scope to “go further and centre these missions within a financial programme for science”, he added, suggesting that such programmes could run from 2025-30, for example.

This would demonstrate that particular research projects “belong to a programme that taxpayers’ money – their money – has paid for, and that they can share in the benefits of that research”, the minister argued.

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