It’s been a rollercoaster two months for UK research and development. In March the sector was celebrating an unparalleled boost in research spending in the Budget, and promises of more to come.
Now the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the landscape. The shock to the UK economy will make it harder for the government to meet its ambitions for research. This comes on top of a hit to university research budgets normally topped up by international student fees.
To make our case and inform difficult choices, the new science minister Amanda Solloway will need to work collaboratively with the R&D community to create a clear vision of where we’re heading and how science fits into our society. This won’t be easy in a time of crisis. But it will be worth the effort.
A target isn’t a vision
A commitment to reach 2.4 per cent of GDP invested in R&D by 2027 is a cornerstone of the UK government’s research policy.
The UK lags behind countries like Germany and China on investment. The March 2020 Budget was the strongest signal yet of Number 10’s commitment to research and the clearest plan yet for how we’ll catch up with the 2.4 per cent investment average.
But the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and wider economic shock shows clearly that the 2.4 per cent target isn’t a destination in its own right. The need for a compelling new vision for UK R&D is more important than ever for two reasons: to make the case for continued public and business investment, and to make wise choices on how that money is spent.
First, GDP is expected to fall sharply and significantly. As Martin McQuillan has noted, the UK could hit the 2.4 per cent target in the next couple of months as this bites. We could hit the target, but miss the point.
Importantly the Budget made commitments in absolute terms, promising £22 billion per year by 2024-25. This would beat projections and more than double the current spend. But this will be harder to meet with the economy under strain and as other worthy causes compete for cash – from social care to schools.
The R&D sector and its champions in government are going to have to work harder than ever to make the case. A strong vision is needed to underpin compelling arguments.
Second, an investment target might tell us about a level of ambition, but it doesn’t tell us the role that we want research to play in our economy and society. We need to know what UK R&D looks and feels like when we get there, to guide our choices.
As part of this we’ll need to consider how R&D can support growth through a challenging economic period. Some rapid thinking is needed here so that we have the best chance of using science as an effective economic stimulus.
Setting a vision with people at its heart
A strong, clear vision will come from collaboration with the academic community and businesses. Creating this will undoubtedly be tough during a crisis. But it will be worth the effort to focus on this once we’re out of the immediate response phase.
In the meantime there is plenty of inspiration to create a starting point, from reports like the Smith Reid review and the Biomedical Bubble, through to positions from NESTA and CBI. Taken together, these point to four big areas that a vision must tackle:
- Using R&D investment to reduce regional inequalities and “level up”
- Defining the UK’s global role
- Enabling business R&D to thrive through funding, tax and regulation
- Building on the UK’s academic strength and depth across disciplines
I believe that to be successful this vision will also need to put people at its heart in two different ways.
To be effective, this vision will need to reach beyond ivory towers and science parks. A good vision will help people connect to what research means to them as individuals and as citizens of the society they live in. Science is the exit strategy from this pandemic, so it’s not surprising that science has a higher public profile than perhaps ever before. We should build from this moment of maximum exposure.
Even better, a vision will reflect what people – taxpayers who fund research – want research to do for them. Alongside the Campaign for Science and Engineering, we’ve commissioned Public First to explore how people relate to research and calls for public investment in this. Look out for the insights we’re publishing soon.
Second, we will only get to our destination with a diverse, skilled and motivated workforce. I hope plans for a research people strategy are still on the table, and that it’s ambitious about making the UK a brilliant place to live and work a researcher.
This will need further reform to immigration rules to give researchers and their families a warm welcome.
To deliver excellent, creative research, we also need a supportive research culture that means diverse researchers from all disciplines can work at their best. Our recent research highlights the scale of change needed. Improving the UK’s research culture must be front and centre in the research people strategy. Research culture must also be a factor in the bureaucracy review as it’s driven by decision making processes.
We already know some of the critical choices that face us. Ideally, our vision will inform these, but where time is not on our side we will need to make good decisions before it’s ready.
Research is increasingly global, as the international effort to find vaccines and anti-virals for SARS-CoV-2 shows.
The EU is the UK’s biggest research partner and the end of the transition period is looming. The new science minister must tackle the future relationship, including the £1.5 billion a year the UK receives in EU funding. There is consensus across the community that UK association to the EU research programmes would return a wide range of benefits and is likely to represent good value for money. It’s great to see that this option is firmly on the table in the UK negotiating position and EU’s mandate.
But the choice here isn’t binary. Participation in the Horizon programme facilitates the UK’s collaboration beyond Europe, and association should be an important pillar of a wider international strategy.
Another pillar should be to continue to use Official Development Assistance, including through the Global Challenges Research Fund, to enable UK-based researchers to contribute their expertise towards solving global problems. This has led to real impacts, including the development of the world’s first vaccine for Ebola.
Before Covid-19, university research budgets were already strained. Now budgets are under further stress. Ensuring the sustainability of the UK’s university system to deliver world-leading research is a challenge the science and university ministers must tackle together. It’s good to see this recognised with the creation of a new University Research Sustainability Taskforce announced last week – this must be more than a talking shop.
One big question is how to address the research funding shortfall. Recent analysis by HEPI has found that university research is underfunded by £4.3 billion a year compared to its real cost. This is because research grants don’t cover the full costs of research; the latest data shows that research council grants cover about 72 per cent of costs.
The gap is subsidised by international student teaching income, so the future of international students and income from student fees is intimately linked to the future of research.
Flexible funding like Quality-Related is an important part of the answer. In England, around £1bn of quality-related (QR) funding is given to universities each year. But between 2010-2011 and 2017-18 QR funding dropped by 13 per cent in real terms, due to inflation while funding was frozen because of austerity. A welcome increase in 2019 is far from enough to make up this earlier fall – so now there’s less QR funding to go around. Correcting this shortfall is essential for university resilience.
QR funding may not be glamorous, but universities use this in creative ways that are not easily filled by other funding. In a report published in 2018, we’ve shown how QR funding can add significant value to universities’ research. There’s a strong case for enhancing QR funding further, as proposed in the Smith Reid review, to increase the UK’s research agility and creativity.
The Covid-19 pandemic is huge disruptive to the R&D sector and the wider economy. But it also brings the power of research into sharp focus. Let’s not miss this moment to bring together clarity and boldness in a vision that shapes coming choices about where UK R&D is headed.