Last Monday we saw a raft of announcements from the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, signalling an intent to refresh the UK’s R&D strategy and set out a longer-term vision.
Together the new Science and Technology Framework and the much-awaited final report from the Nurse review weigh in at over 180 pages, and there is a lot for the sector to digest.
In comparing the two documents there is a glaring omission in the government’s vision as articulated in the framework which Nurse has captured front and centre: the nature of our relationship with our European allies.
While the ten-point plan in the new framework includes a section on international opportunities, it only references G7 and G20 countries as key partners for the future of UK R&D. There is no mention of the hundreds of thousands of collaborative links UK universities and businesses have built up over many years with European partners, and beyond, through full participation in successive EU research funding programmes.
Nurse is rightly unequivocal about the benefits of securing association to Horizon Europe – the world’s biggest ever multi-country R&D programme – will bring to the UK, its businesses and its citizens. Now the Windsor Framework has been agreed the EU has signalled that detailed negotiations on this can begin immediately. Nurse argues “it is essential that the UK associates with Horizon Europe” and that this be done quickly in order to “prevent the loss of some of the UK’s most talented researchers” and avoid “short-term decision making [which] will damage the long-term UK RDI landscape”.
The UK’s research sector has been making this case consistently for two years and more, and ministers recognised this too, previously arguing that association would be the best outcome for UK R&D. This is because modern science is team science: access to the ready-made routes for talent flow, facilities access and collaboration with multiple countries are crucial to delivering excellent research and commercialising it for wider benefit.
The new Science and Technology Framework references the “own-collaborate-access” schema first introduced in the Integrated Review of 2021, which recognises how essential working with other leading scientific nations will be to achieving the government’s science superpower ambitions. But failing to maintain and strengthen existing links with Europe and a host of other R&D-intensive nations through Horizon would seriously set back our ability to develop new key technologies and cement our place as a world-leader in science and technology. This is not just the case in STEM disciplines but also in vital SHAPE ( Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy/Environment) subjects which will play a necessary role in navigating how new technologies like AI can be maximised for the benefit of business and consumers.
Sustainable research finance
Another key theme of the Nurse review – and an increasingly pressing concern for the sector – is how to ensure UK R&D remains financially sustainable into the future. The government has committed to a welcome increase in public investment to £20bn by 2024/25, although with the recent £1.6bn Treasury claw-back from the R&D budget for 2022/23 the sector needs reassurance that we are still on track to meet this commitment. The linear trajectory of increased investment to £20bn set out in the spending review now seems in doubt unless the chancellor has more to say in his upcoming budget speech.
Despite the headline increase by the end of this Parliament, Nurse argues there is still under-investment in UK R&D especially in the way individual research projects are funded. His report makes the case for ‘end-to-end’ research support, covering not just direct research costs, but also administrative services, technical and laboratory facilities, in order to secure the financial sustainability of the system. It outlines how the loss made on performing research is growing, with the sector-wide deficit on university research running at £4.2bn in 2020/21, up from £2.2bn in 2008/9, and likely much higher now given rates of inflation have far outstripped indexation by funders. This is increasing pressure to make up the difference from other sources of funding, notably quality-related research funding and its devolved equivalents, which is intended for other purposes like supporting a pipeline of new ideas to underpin innovation which are not being funded elsewhere.
Nurse picks up in his foreword the perennial problem that recommendations made by independent reviews of this type are usually only partially implemented by the government of the day. There is a particular risk here with a total of 29 recommendations that ministers could be tempted to cherry-pick ideas for quick wins and ignore harder to solve issues which require additional investment but are vital to the future health of the system. One area where this would be particularly problematic is if Nurse’s recommendations for extending core funding to a wider range of research performing organisations resulted in existing funding being spread much more thinly across a greater number of institutions. Such an outcome could severely exacerbate the financial sustainability challenge which Nurse rightly identifies.
In conclusion, it is helpful to see the government’s imperative for a longer term approach to setting strategy on R&D with the ambition to cement the UK’s position as a science and technology superpower by 2030. Nurse argues that government coordination, clarity and stability will be essential to any successful RDI policy. This should include maintaining and strengthening our links with Europe and beyond through association to Horizon Europe as well as launching new international collaboration support schemes. We also need a greater focus on what the funding picture will look like post- 2024/25 to support a resilient and adaptable research base which can lead the world and help deliver the new technologies, economic growth and jobs the government wants to see.