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Research Funding

British science gets post-Brexit funding boost

Plans include creation of a high-risk, high-payoff research agency

by Benjamin Plackett, special to C&EN
April 22, 2020

In an atypical move for a conservative government, newly appointed UK finance minister Rishi Sunak announced something of a spending spree last month in the government’s first budget since leaving the European Union. As his party puts its tradition of frugality to one side, one of the winners is science, but even those who had been campaigning for a bump to the research budget are startled by how loose the new government’s purse strings are as the government promises an 80% increase in scientific research spending by 2024.

UK science spending
The government plans an 80% increase in science funding over the next few years.
A bar chart shows UK government spending on science from 2013 and 2019 and the proejcted increase by 2024.
Credit: Sources: 2013–18, UK Office for National Statistics; 2019, Campaign for Science and Engineering estimate; 2024, Her Majesty's Treasury, Budget 2020. Note: Amounts for 2013–18 were adjusted for inflation to 2019 using a Bank of England calculator. The 2024 amount was converted from pounds sterling to US dollars at the April 22, 2020, exchange rate of £1.00 = $1.23.

“In 2019 we think there was just under £12 billion [$15 billion] of public money spent on science, and so to see a commitment to move to £22 billion is spectacular,” says James Tooze, a policy officer at the Campaign for Science and Engineering, which advocates for better research funding. “It needed to happen, but we were still quite surprised by the amount.”

The raise will be phased in over the next 4 years. By 2024, the UK’s public expenditure on research should be the equivalent of 0.8% of the country’s GDP, which would outstrip government spending in China, France, Japan and the United States, according to calculations in the budget.

“The government is putting their money where their mouth is,” says Martin Smith, policy and advocacy adviser at the Wellcome Trust. “The science community has become so used to small increases that we’re not used to celebrating a victory like this. The temptation is to look for the catch and see how the figures have been fudged, but this is real.”

Since Sunak delivered the budget, the UK government has rolled out unprecedented urgent spending in response to the coronavirus. It has earmarked another £20 million to be spent specifically on research related to the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it causes, COVID-19. It has also set up schemes to pay up to 80% of salaries for employees who have been furloughed due to the pandemic.

Smith says it’s unlikely the government will go back on its budget promises to science to pay for the emergency funding. “The coronavirus underscores the importance of science both to human health and the economy,” he says. “Science is the exit strategy to this crisis.”

The science community has become so used to small increases that we’re not used to celebrating a victory like this.
Martin Smith, policy and advocacy adviser, Wellcome Trust

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that from 2013 to 2018, public spending on research in the UK idled around £10–11 billion when adjusted for inflation. The UK fiscal year runs from April 6 to April 5 of the next year.

Under former Prime Minister Theresa May, the British government previously said it wanted to continue its participation in the European Union’s research and funding efforts known as “Horizon Europe” after Brexit, but the new boost to domestic research suggests the UK is also eager to keep pace in its own right.

“It’s about being competitive globally and not just with Europe,” Smith says. “It’s not yet obvious whether the budget increases include allowances for the cost of participating in Horizon Europe, or if that would be in addition.” If push came to shove, he would prefer the UK spend some of the boosted funding to participate in Horizon Europe rather than back out.

As part of the budget announcement, Sunak said that at least £800 million will be directed to the creation of a new “blue skies” research agency to be modeled after the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was developed to counter Soviet advances in satellite technology during the 1950s.

The aim of this new institute is to support high-risk, high-payoff research projects in pursuit of long-term innovation.

“We are the country of Newton, Hodgkin, and Turing,” Sunak said during the budget announcement. “Ours is a history filled with ideas, invention and discovery.”

The high-risk investment is welcomed by Helen Pain, the acting chief executive officer of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). “The confirmation of £800 million committed towards creating a new blue-skies DARPA-style research agency is encouraging,” she says. “The government must engage with the research community to finalize how this will work in practice, clarifying its goals and how it will deliver against them.”

The budget includes a guarantee to spend these new funds beyond Britain’s traditional and big-name universities like Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College, London. This may be a political decision linked to the government’s wider post-Brexit strategy.

The Conservative Party won a sizeable and unexpected majority in Parliament in last December’s election. This was largely because Prime Minister Boris Johnson was able to turn traditionally left-wing and economically deprived constituencies in Northern England toward his party with an election mantra to “get Brexit done.” He has since repeatedly promised to “level up” investment in that region as a reward for voting conservative.

But it also makes sense from a science policy perspective, Smith says. “If you want to maximize the research capacity of the country then you need to grow everywhere, and it’s well known that research funding is too concentrated in a few centers of excellence.”

News of the hike in science funding comes as the government reforms the immigration system to make it simpler for foreign scientists to come and work in the UK, which Smith says is a sign that the government is developing a coherent strategy to support science and research.

But it’s not all good news on the immigration front: while the eligibility criteria have been relaxed, the costs associated with visas have risen in the new budget. “This is definitely a problem because it may mean talented researchers pick other countries because they can’t afford to come to the UK,” Smith says.

Others agree. “This sends the wrong message to skilled workers around the world wanting to come to the UK,” the RSC’s Pain says.

For the most part, however, observers are enthusiastic about what the new budget means for British science. “It’s a really strong endorsement and a clear mandate from the government to say they want to get on board with science in the United Kingdom,” research funding advocate Tooze says.


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