As the autumn budget and comprehensive spending review loom, leaders in science and research have told MPs that it is vital government fulfils its promise to spend £22 billion on the R&D sector by 2025 – and commits to a timetable of how it will achieve the uplift.
At a special meeting on 20 October, members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee heard from senior figures in R&D – including a vice-chancellor and the chair of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – of the paramountcy of the research spending pledge to the future of the UK as a “science superpower”.
The £22bn figure is the foundation of the government’s commitment to growing investment in R&D to 2.4% of gross domestic product by 2027. This year’s figure is about £15bn. Kwasi Kwarteng, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, has previously announced plans for how the government will turn the UK into a “science superpower“.
Sir John Kingman, former chair of UKRI, said he expected the Treasury to commit a significant sum but voiced concerns that, without a definite timetable, the investment could amount to “wishful thinking”. Government “does have a tendency to put numbers out without specific years”, Sir John noted.
The former UKRI chair warned the headline figure may amount to a lower-than-expected boost if it included money that was otherwise accounted for.
“Whatever that number is it will be incredibly important to be very precise about what is in that number and what is not,” said Sir John. The £1bn fee for UK association to the European Union Horizon Europe programme, for example, might be included, Sir John hypothesised – but this outlay was previously in addition to the R&D spend. Research tax credits, worth £7.4bn between 2019-20, may also be reclassified as R&D spending. “It’s very important to compare apples with apples because the cost of R&D credits is many billions now. That makes an enormous difference,” Sir John summarised.
We need [an investment] strategy that is expansive, ambitious and exciting, not something just written by McKinsey
– Sir Paul Nurse, Francis Crick Institute
Sir John’s successor, UKRI chair Andrew Mackenzie, told the committee of conversations about R&D funding in the Treasury: “I’m very positive about the way our message has been heard.”
“We’ve been given a very fair hearing, we’ve been listened to,” he said. “I’ve personally had access to the highest levels of government repeatedly during this process, and so I absolutely feel listened to.”
He later added: “That sense that I’m pushing against an open door and people have understood the message does make me feel on the optimistic side.”
But, Sir Andrew reflected, “there is still quite a way to go from turning strategic aspirations to actual policy” and described recent cuts to Official Development Assistance (ODA) as “a tough pill to swallow”.
Dame Nancy Rothwell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, said the R&D target would mean UK spending would still be below the average for other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.
“We are not talking about leapfrogging [the levels spending in other countries],” she said.
Dame Nancy called on ministers to increase public funding to subsidise more of the cost of research, which currently averages around 70%. This shortfall meant universities were “overly dependent” on international student tuition fees to pay for R&D, which put UK universities at risk from geopolitics.
“[A] commitment to spend without any date, possibly beyond the current parliament, would have limited value and I think would question our ability to even begin to become a science superpower or deliver on levelling up,” Dame Nancy warned. “I think the date is really important, recognising, of course, the financial constraints… [but] there’s a difference between costs and investment.”
The Francis Crick Institute director and Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse – who is leading a review of the UK research ecosystem for the government – said UK science had been “underfunded […] for decades”. He also warned ministers against making funding promises without a timetable for delivery.
“We need [an investment] strategy that is expansive, ambitious and exciting, not something just written by McKinsey – something that really understands science,” he told MPs.
MPs also heard from Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, who highlighted the importance of maintaining international and private sector confidence in the government’s commitment to R&D.
“If we don’t have a clear signal that the funding is going to come behind the rhetoric and the aspiration, we’re not going to get that leverage of private investment,” Sir Adrian warned.