There’s a growing gulf between rhetoric and reality in the government support for science. The Integrated Review is full of fantastic and achievable ambitions, but the words are meaningless if they’re not backed up with funding.
Britain can and should aim to be a science superpower. We’re starting from a strong base and it would be great for our reputation globally. But we can’t just will ourselves into being a science superpower – it takes sustained investment.
Other countries are planning to bounce back from Covid-19 with massive investments in R&D. All around the world our counterparts and competitors are spending more than we are on science and innovation.
But the UK has just cut one critical international research budget, and there’s no clarity on where over £1bn of expected funding for the key Horizon Europe programme is coming from.
Other countries such as the USA, EU, South Korea, Israel, and China are investing heavily in basic science, R&D and innovation (1). The Integrated Review reiterates the government’s intention to increase R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, but aid budget cuts and a potential lack of funding for Horizon Europe participation work against this.
Some of the UK’s 0.7/0.5% aid commitment is spent supporting research led by UK universities that will help low- and middle-income countries, all of whom are future trading partners. Following the aid budget cut, UK Research and Innovation said last week that it will have a £120m shortfall in funding for this research, and the National Institute for Health Research is facing a cut to its global health funding of 28%.
Aid cuts mean UK scientists will have to abandon work they’ve already started, often in partnership with academics in developing countries. It is unprecedented to not honour existing commitments. This will damage our national reputation and it flies in the face of ‘global Britain’ ambitions. We need to return to 0.7% to avoid being cut out of international research partnerships in the long term.
The UK’s R&D budget is also facing an effective cut of more than £1bn because the government has not yet identified funding to support the UK’s participation in the Horizon Europe funding programme, previously funded from EU membership fees (2):
Researchers in the UK welcomed the decision to continue the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe. But they will be immensely frustrated, and with good reason, if it’s going to be paid for by cuts to other research. We urgently need reassurance on this.
The government has exciting ambitions for science in the UK and around the world but they have to be prepared to put enough money behind these or they won’t be achieved.
Core R&D funding supports the people and places that deliver research on a day to day basis. Eroding this investment will damage the UK’s research pipeline, challenging the UK’s ability to stay at the cutting edge and undermining progress towards the government's vision.
1. R&D investment figures by country as a proportion of GDP (2018 figures) are available from http://data.uis.unesco.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=SCN_DS&lang=en
2. The UK-EU agreement at Christmas paved the way for the UK to join the €95bn programme, but as it stands the UK’s R&D budget hasn’t been increased to fund it. The UK’s participation in previous programmes was previously covered through the UK’s EU membership fees, representing extra support for research beyond the UK R&D budget.
The government has yet to say how participation in Horizon Europe will be funded in 2021/22, despite the new financial year starting in three weeks. If funding for Horizon Europe comes from existing R&D budgets, it would amount to an annual funding cut of at least £1bn for UK science.
Today’s Integrated Review puts “sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology” as the first pillar of its strategic framework. In particular, it says that: