Sharma publishes plans for UK ‘science superpower’

The new Research and Development Roadmap includes changes to the points-based visa system

The business secretary Alok Sharma has today unveiled the government’s plan to turn the UK into a “science superpower”.

The Research and Development Roadmap includes investment in the UK’s scientific infrastructure and an extension of post-study visas for PhD students.

Mr Sharma has also pledged to cut red tape, back start-ups and boost international collaboration.

“[Ministers] accept the need to reverse the decline in funding for the long-term, fundamental research on which the entire system depends,” the report states.

The response to the plan from the higher education sector has been positive. Chief executive of Universities UK Alistair Jarvis described the roadmap as “a compelling vision” for R&D in the UK and praised the “bold” decision to extend the Graduate Route visa scheme.

At the centre of the new plan is the announcement of two new visa policies, which Mr Sharma said would boost the UK’s appeal as a destination for talented researchers and scientists.

In an extension to the Graduate Route, which was announced in September 2019, international students who complete a PhD starting in summer 2021 will now be allowed to live and work in the UK for three years after completing their studies. Last year, the government announced that undergraduate and master’s students would be able to stay in the country for two years after completing their courses.

The roadmap also revealed that the global talent visa scheme, announced by home secretary Priti Patel in January 2020, will be opened up to EU citizens. Under the new system, highly qualified migrants can come to the UK without needing a prior offer of employment.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said it has also secured “a number of improvements” to the Home Office’s points-based immigration system. The changes include extending the window in which prospective students can make visa applications, removing study time limits at postgraduate level and allowing all students to switch any other type of visa from within the UK. Once introduced, these changes will be extended to existing students.

R&D funding and infrastructure upgrades

BEIS will pull forward a £300-million investment to upgrade scientific infrastructure from funds earmarked for the World Class Labs scheme. UK research institutes and universities will be eligible for the finance that is to be spent modernising equipment, digital resources and facilities.

“We will refresh our relationship with universities in England to ensure that their research activities are sustainable and delivering even greater impact,” the report continues. “We will review how we fund university research, ensuring that we support the highest quality research areas to grow efficiently with the minimum of bureaucracy

“A new ‘compact’ between government and universities in England could strengthen accountability for discretionary funding, potentially bringing together existing separate higher education research concordats.”

As part of this process, BEIS and UKRI will review the balance between QR and competitive grant funding to ensure universities have enough money for “higher risk and emerging areas of research”. A new UK R&D Place Strategy, scheduled to be published later this year, will identify ways these policies can help distribute innovation more evenly across the country.

BEIS will also spend an as-yet-undisclosed figure to support “risk-takers” to launch start-up businesses and scale up their innovations. The plan will include a new “R&D tax credit scheme”.

The R&D Roadmap will help us achieve our ambitions by unleashing the potential of science and research to embrace diversity, resilience and adaptability while tackling our biggest challenges such as achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050
– Amanda Solloway, science minister

New R&D bodies announced

As part of the plan, the government announced the establishment of two new groups to evaluate and improve R&D policies.

A new Office for Talent (OfT) based in Number 10 will review the effectiveness of the current visa rules for scientists and researchers and assess customer service across the immigration system. A new Innovation Expert Group will review and improve how the government supports innovation, from research through to product development.

The report included mention of the government’s plan for an ARPA-style £800m research body in the north of England, but no new details about its establishment were included.

Said Mr Jarvis: “The news that the new Graduate Route will be extended for PhD students, to allow them to remain in the UK for three years after study, is a bold policy move which will increase the UK’s competitive edge in the global competition for talented research students.

“The announcement of the Graduate Route is already having a huge impact on the UK’s attractiveness as a destination. It will give a competitive offer to some of the brightest minds from across the world who bring huge benefits to university campuses and local communities and can help to build the economy.”

Mr Sharma announced on Saturday that the government aimed to maintain a close relationship with European research programmes after the end of the Brexit transition phase, but had not made a final decision because the EU had yet to formally announced the future of Horizon Europe funding post-2020. The business secretary added that though the UK government could not commit to Horizon, it would replace any shortfalls caused by an exit from the programme and would put in place alternative schemes to fund UK research. He also said the government would pursue “global scientific partnerships”.

On Saturday, BEIS also published details of a university research support package, which includes two new “significant” funds to support research-intensive universities affected by the financial fallout of coronavirus.

The government has made a commitment to increase UK investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 and to increase public funding for R&D to £22 billion per year by 2024 to 2025.UK science superpower science superpower

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