UK’s £750 million science funding boost includes new fellowships

Mid-career fellowship scheme backed by a £250 million endowment is part of package linked to unused Horizon Europe funds

November 22, 2023
Source: Getty

The UK government has unveiled a new £250 million mid-career fellowship scheme as part of science investment commitments worth £750 million linked to what it called the “excellent terms” it negotiated for the country’s return to Horizon Europe.

Under a raft of pro-science announcements unveiled in the Autumn Statement on 22 November, the UK will support what it describes as its “new long-term world-class Discovery Fellowships backed by a £250 million endowment”.

The new programme has been made possible by the “excellent terms for the UK to associate to Horizon Europe and Copernicus, getting great value for taxpayers while maximising opportunities for researchers”, according to the full Autumn Statement document which was published shortly after chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s speech to the House of Commons.

“As a result, the government can now announce ambitious investments of over £750 million in UK R&D this financial year,” it adds, a likely nod to a substantial underspend related to a period when monies designated for Horizon Europe membership were held back.

The scheme arrives shortly after the departure of George Freeman as science minister, who had championed the need for what he called “really bold fellowships” that could rival the 10-year mid-career fellowships funded by Germany’s Max Planck Institutes. The proposals were also outlined in the UK’s Pioneer programme – otherwise known as Plan B – which would have been introduced if the UK had not been able to rejoin Horizon.

However, the creation of an endowment to “maximise flexibility and test new funding models” means the impact of the scheme may be limited, with US university endowments returning about 6 per cent a year over the past 10 years.

The £750 million underspend will also pay for an additional £145 million in innovation spending, which will spent “through Innovate UK to support business innovation”, the government adds.

“This includes £20 million for productivity and decarbonisation of foundation industries, £50 million for battery innovation, £50 million for investment in Catapults, and £25 million for innovation in critical technologies,” it says.

The Autumn Statement also reveals the government is “awarding up to £59 million to 15 projects, which will leverage significant additional private funding from the sector, representing an expected £100 million of new private/public investment in space research and development infrastructure”.

An extra £25 million will also be spent on science infrastructure through Public Sector Research Establishments, while an additional £50 million will be spent via the Future Fund Breakthrough Programme to help the “UK’s most intensive R&D companies to scale up”.

The government has also published its response to Sir Paul Nurse’s wide-ranging review of the UK’s research landscape which called on the government to “take account of the true cost of ‘end-to-end’ research activity”, and consider a move towards full economic costing of research which is usually loss-making for universities.

On this key point, the government’s response said it “recognises the challenges of financial sustainability for organisations” but said only that “any changes to the funding framework for research, as recommended by the review, will need to be considered in the context of a future spending review”.

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