This article is more than 4 years old

The road to 2.4 per cent lies beyond the university

In a new report for the Policy Institute at King's College London, David Willetts puts the case for government investment in research capacity on multiple fronts
This article is more than 4 years old

David Willetts was Minister for Universities and Science from 2010 to 2014.

The election manifestos have revealed a strong cross-party consensus on the importance of boosting research and development spend.

Boris Johnson has a clear strong personal commitment to science and technology reflected in the commitment to reach 2.4 per cent of GDP on science and research and development sooner than 2027 –  a massive boost from the 1.7 per cent of GDP where it has been hovering for the last decade. Labour has committed “to build an ‘innovation nation’ and achieve a target of 3 per cent GDP spent on R&D by 2030.” The Lib Dems have similar commitments as well.

In a pamphlet, The Road to 2.4%: Transforming Britain’s R&D Performance published by the Policy Institute of King’s College London I tackle the very welcome challenge of how to make the most of this opportunity.


The increase in spending when UKRI was created all went on the new Challenges with nothing for core capability. We must not repeat this mistake. There needs to be a substantial increase in the core budgets of the individual Research Councils covering a wide range of disciplines. Universities too are under pressure because research grants only meet 80 per cent of their full economic cost and there is a good case for this going up to 100 per cent.

Some will say that QR funding is to plug this gap in university funding. But that was not its original purpose. And anyway that only reveals the biggest loser from the dual funding model – research institutes outside universities which do not get QR. The increase in the R&D budget is an opportunity to boost these too. With public spending tight it was understandable that we should focus public spending very much on universities so as to keep them world class. But as well as helping them now we should also look at funding more applied R&D outside universities.

One way of deploying  this extra funding would be a British DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). So I look at what the American DARPA does.  I don’t find any evidence that it has ever focused on pure curiosity driven research. Right from the start its mission has been to “prevent technology surprises for the US and instead to create them for others”.  It has always been a tool of America’s security strategy which is to have a lead in every key technology.


It is this focus on technology from which we can learn and the Conservative manifesto commitment to invest in “critical technologies” is very welcome.  It is an opportunity for the UK to support key general purpose technologies on their long journey to market. That means systematically scanning for the technologies coming over the horizon and then backing them.

Innovate UK is a crucial agency for this and its budget has been particularly hard hit. Their popular and well-respected SMART awards to innovative businesses are heavily over-subscribed: putting more into them would be one of the most effective way of boosting spending and getting companies to spend more too – the 2.4 per cent target is after all a combination of private and public spending

Above all it is very encouraging that we are talking about how to spend more on R&D. This is a striking contrast with the threats to university funding for teaching – either from the Conservative manifesto’s revival of interest in the Augur Review or Labour’s plans to abolish fees which would be unlikely to be fully compensated with public spending and would be accompanied with a return to number controls.

Delivering the 2.4% R&D target requires more activity in more universities. And the spending outside universities would still depend for its effectiveness on more graduates from a wide range of disciplines. You cannot drive with one foot on the accelerator and another on the brake.


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