Why is the UK government considering a huge cut to research?

John Morgan looks at why UK research faces crisis over Horizon Europe funding under government that wants ‘science superpower’ status

March 29, 2021

Frantic lobbying against huge cuts to research budgets to pay the bill for joining European Union research programmes succeeded in its initial aim of elevating the issue to the prime minister’s attention. But as universities waited nervously to see whether Boris Johnson would intervene against a cut of up to £2 billion, hard questions have to be asked about how a government promising to make the UK a “science superpower” and massively increase research spending reached this point.

In December, the UK government announced that it would associate to the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme as part of its post-Brexit trade deal with the bloc, but without any clarity on how the costs would be paid. Importantly, the association announcement came just after the Treasury’s one-year spending review setting departmental budgets.

The research budget, which sits within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, was given a multi-year settlement at the spending review, reflecting the importance that the Johnson government has assigned to science in its post-Brexit UK vision.

When the UK was a member, the costs of being part of the bloc’s research programme formed part of the UK’s overall contribution to the EU, and “was always accepted to be additional to the BEIS science/R&D budget”, Conservative former BEIS secretary of state and current House of Commons Science and Technology chair Greg Clark observed in a letter to the prime minister on 23 March. Mr Clark urged Mr Johnson not to fund Horizon costs from the existing research budget – which the Treasury appeared to be insisting should be the case – and thus deliver a “devastating cut” to UK research.

That is the sector’s case for specific funding to cover the costs of joining EU research: this funding has never previously been part of the research budget. But that is simultaneously the reason why a huge research cut may be in prospect to pay for Horizon.

For a Treasury implementing what the Institute for Fiscal Studies has described as a new era of austerity in unprotected spending areas in the wake of high spending on the national pandemic response, the prospect of a near £2 billion “extra” annually looks most unpalatable.

However, the sector would argue that this funding should come from the money the UK saves by no longer contributing to the EU budget.

There is criticism of BEIS from some in the university sector, who feel that the department was too slow to raise the alarm on problems with the Treasury, meaning sector lobbying efforts could only be a last-ditch attempt ahead of a financial year that begins on 6 April.

The prime minister was asked about the issue during a House of Commons Liaison Committee meeting on 24 March and described Horizon Europe as a “wonderful pan-European project” that is “extremely costly”. He added: “The way it works at the moment is the UK spends a lot upfront and doesn’t get much back for a while – so we are looking at that, but in the context of a huge increase in investment in science and in R&D generally.”

Mr Johnson continued that he had discussed the issue “with the chancellor and Patrick Vallance [the chief scientific adviser] and others”, with the aim of ensuring “scientists don’t have…discontinuity” on existing research funding.

Whatever the outcome of Mr Johnson’s internal deliberations, universities should perhaps see the whole affair as a bleak harbinger: of uncertainty over the government’s spending pledges on research spending in the post-pandemic future and of battles to come over their funding in areas beyond research.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Why is the UK considering a huge cut to the research budget?

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