The government needs to deliver on its promises on research

The 2.4% pledge is welcome, says Tim Bradshaw, but we've been here before. It's time for government to co-design a fresh research and innovation strategy.

The conclusive General Election results indicate we can now look forward to a welcome period of political stability. This opportunity must not be wasted.

The government’s commitment to increasing research and development investment to 2.4 per cent of GDP – and doubling public investment in research – will be crucial to ensuring the UK is at the forefront of new green technologies, new ways to deliver public services and new and improved treatments for conditions including cancer and dementia. The wider potential for transforming the economy is an even bigger prize.

The UK currently has the lowest productivity levels of the G7 and, in turn, this has a negative impact on overall living standards – linked to health, life expectancy and general wellbeing; issues any government should be concerned about. We know that take-up of research and development in the economy drives productivity, so increasing investment in research and development from the current 1.69 per cent of UK GDP to at least 2.4 per cent is crucial to address this and many of our biggest social and other challenges, such as climate change.

A word of warning

However, we have been here before. The ten-year science and innovation investment framework launched to much fanfare in 2004 made a similar promise, but ultimately didn’t deliver. Given 2.4 per cent is a “whole economy” target, i.e. made up of both public and private sector spending, we’d argue that what really counts this time is the pledge made by the Prime Minister during the election that a returning Conservative government would increase its annual investment in research and development to £18 billion by 2024/25.

Clearly that level of investment will need to ramp up over time to address capacity issues in the research sector: the UK will need thousands more research workers in universities, businesses and research institutes and the wider public sector.

Interestingly, the Conservatives’ costings document appears to only indicate a rise to just over £14 billion public investment in research and development by 2023/24, so these pledges will also need ongoing scrutiny. And we will need a strategic plan to deliver this level of change and that plan will need to show how the government will leverage private investment, alongside its own, to deliver on the GDP target as soon as possible.

The international landscape

What many in the university sector will be worried about though is what happens to our research, innovation and education links with Europe after Brexit. Buried in the notes to editors that accompanied the Prime Minister’s research and development speech during the election were the words: “this huge investment will replace EU funding.”

The strength and value of EU Framework programmes is such that the UK collaborates most frequently with the EU27 taken as a group than with any other country or block. As the recent review by Professor Sir Adrian Smith and Professor Graham Reid found, international collaboration is not an optional extra. While the Conservative manifesto indicates the UK will continue to collaborate with the EU, including on the Horizon programme, early clarity on whether post-2020 collaboration will be as a third country, or on the basis of full association would be welcome. But either way, we should be thinking ambitiously about the future and how to strengthen our wider international links

Full economic costing

Back home, another ongoing challenge has been the real-terms cuts to QR funding and its equivalents. Along with research currently funded at 72 per cent of full economic cost by the Research Councils (down from 75 per cent in 2015/16), universities are currently running a £4.3 billion deficit on research activity. Doubling public research and development investment can’t then mean a simple allocation across budgets in the proportions we have now: as well as exciting ideas such as the new Advanced Research Projects Agency, the government will also need to ensure the fundamentals of our research and innovation ecosystem are sustainable.

For that we call on the government to co-design its research and development implementation strategy with all the key partners at the table: universities, business, research charities, other funders, and research users, yes, but also other parts of government to ensure the vision is coherent. Top of the list for engagement must be the Home Office (or the rumoured new government department for borders and immigration) to ensure the UK’s new immigration policy can actively help to attract the researchers, technicians and innovators we need. Hopefully we will also get the political will and leadership required to see such a strategy through for the long-term.

 

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