A portal to the promised land

The UK government needs to back up its commitment to investing in ‘science superpower’ status with a focus on the entire funding ecosystem

June 10, 2021
Model of Boris Johnson paraded through the streets during traditional Bonfire Night celebrations as a metaphor for In his explosive evidence to a parliamentary committee
Source: Getty

In his explosive evidence to a parliamentary committee on the early days of the Covid crisis, Dominic Cummings, former chief adviser to the UK prime minister, adopted a scorched earth policy.

His flamethrower was not restricted to politicians. Among others to be torched were scientific advisers captured by groupthink, behavioural scientists (“charlatans” peddling “duff papers”) and Dilyn, Boris Johnson’s dog.

But amid the firestorm, there was a brief respite when he was asked about whether the Covid crisis had derailed the wider reform agenda he had wanted to deliver.

No. In fact, it had accelerated it in some ways, Cummings argued, citing as evidence the centrality of science and technology to the country’s future.

“The vaccine task force showed both in a defensive and a positive sense what putting science and tech at the heart of the British state’s agenda can do,” he said.

The commitment to increase investment in research and development is one of the vestiges of Cummings’ time at the heart of government, central to all sorts of agendas, including tackling the climate crisis, “levelling up”, and building a new, post-Brexit identity for “global Britain”.

But there remain concerns about how well formed and sincere this oft-repeated commitment is.

Speaking to me at a recent THE event, differing views were offered by two people who know the inner workings of government exceptionally well.

Jo Johnson, the former universities and science minister, rejected the idea that the government’s commitment to investing in “science superpower” status was in any way flaky or bogus.

“The commitment to science and technology goes through the Integrated Review like a stick of rock, it’s the key tool, our big calling card on the world stage, in maintaining our relevance post-Brexit.

“And while it’s right to want to see the detail of the road map of how the government is going to get the public components of these commitments of £22 billion for R&D by 2024-25, a lot of flesh has already been put on the bone.

“The government deserves real credit, and notwithstanding the pressures on the public finances, there’s no sign of backsliding…I sometimes worry that the government gets beaten up all the time, and there’s not enough credit – that ultimately could prove to be a disincentive to continue to invest so heavily in the science base, if all it gets is relentless brickbats.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (and a former special adviser to David Willetts in his time as minister), took a more pessimistic view, arguing that “politicians always talk about spending much more on R&D across the developed world, and more often than not, those commitments are not lived up to…I hope [Jo Johnson] is right, but there has been a bit of a gap between rhetoric and reality. That said, I do think that how [the sector] lobbies matters…and that it is a mistake to always make out that we’re an enemy of the government, when in the long term our interests are aligned.”

In our cover story this week, we look in detail at the government’s spending plans, what to read into previous prevarication over Horizon Europe, and the extent to which the research base should expect sleight of hand to play a part in delivering the planned increases in investment.

It is worth adding to these questions an additional factor: that for universities – where the majority of UK research is conducted – any cash increase will be happening in a wider fiscal context, including a potential hit in the autumn spending review and final response to the Augar review, if that delivers a substantial reduction in tuition fees.

Furthermore, the degree to which international student numbers and fee income will come roaring back remains unknown, and as Hillman also made clear, it is an often ignored fact that those fees provide a significant subsidy for UK research too.

Perhaps this is a lobbying line that the sector should take with the Treasury, focusing on the funding ecosystem with all of its interdependencies. Because clarity and a long-term road map for public investment are crucial to unlocking private, industry funding (a point made in our opinions pages this week by another former universities and science minister, Chris Skidmore). It is also vital to recognise that the bill for research is supported by other funding streams too, including student fees.

If the Treasury wants those public spending commitments on R&D to have the desired impact, then hollowing out other areas of university budgets and removing cross-subsidies is not going to help.


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