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Research Funding

Is UK science getting the spending boost it was promised?

After a significant increase announced last year, 2021 brings uncertainty

by Benjamin Plackett, special to C&EN
April 7, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 13


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks outside the Hart Biologicals building at Hartlepool, UK, with four other people, all wearing lab coats and masks.
Credit: Ian Cooper/Teesside Live/Newscom
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (second from left) sees value in investing in high risk, high returns research.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has often promised to make the UK into a science superpower as part of his vision for the country following its departure from the European Union in 2020. In keeping with that pledge, the UK government last year announced plans to boost its science spending by 80% in the coming years.

But, in March, it became clear that cuts to UK foreign aid spending will leave the UK Research and Innovation department with a £120 million ($166 million) hole in its budget.

Additionally, the UK and EU struck an agreement to allow the UK to remain in the EU’s flagship research program, Horizon Europe. While scientists and researchers welcomed that deal, it comes with an additional estimated cost to the UK of £1 billion ($1.38 billion) in the first year alone. Previously, the Treasury’s financial contributions to the EU paid the UK’s membership to Horizon.

Analysts expected that the government would use its March 3 budget to explain how it planned to pay for Horizon post-Brexit. But that clarity was not forthcoming. In the weeks that followed, observers began to worry that Horizon’s funding might come out of the country’s science budget, leaving some to wonder whether UK science was really getting a raise.

“It’s all been a bit of a rollercoaster,” says Martin Smith, policy and advocacy advisor at the Wellcome Trust. “It hasn’t been good because a lot of research is multi-year in its nature, so stability is really important.”

The government’s April 1 pledge of £250 million ($346 million) in new money and £400 million ($553 million) from a discretionary fund to help cover Horizon may have calmed these fears somewhat. That plan still leaves a £350 million ($484 million) shortfall, but it’s expected those funds will come from the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy.

“It’s a win, which we should celebrate,” Smith says.

With the cost of Horizon Europe now accounted for, this means the promised 80% increase in government science expenditure outweighs the recent cuts to research once funded through the foreign aid budget.

One way the government plans to spend this increased funding is through the creation of the new Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA).

It’s all been a bit of a rollercoaster.
Martin Smith, policy and advocacy advisor, Wellcome Trust

The agency is the embodiment of a long-promised British version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which develops emerging technologies. Like DARPA, ARIA’s task is to support research projects with lofty aims, accepting that many of them are unlikely to succeed.

“ARIA has the individual jigsaw pieces it needs to enable high-risk, high-reward research putting the UK in a formidable position to respond to the most pressing global challenges of our time,” says Tanya Sheridan, the Royal Society of Chemistry’s policy and evidence manager.

The speed of ARIA’s rollout is unclear, but the government suggests ARIA will be fully operational in 2022. The agency will have £800 million ($1.1 billion) to spend over the next three years.

The government is granting ARIA a high degree of autonomy in picking which research projects to back and whether it wants to do so through seed grants, prize incentives, full program grants, or otherwise. “It will have a much higher tolerance for failure than is normal, recognising that in research the freedom to fail is often also the freedom to succeed,” according to a government news release.

This marks a departure from the typical way science is funded in the UK, which often has a results-oriented focus to ensure governments can account for their spending to taxpayers.

Sheridan of the Royal Society of Chemistry welcomes this change. “A smaller agency with greater agility in its delivery model than we currently see in the UK system could make an important contribution to driving successful R&D,” she says.

However, some concerns accompany news of ARIA.

“We see some caution in the research and innovation community,” Sheridan says. “They tell us they are keen to work with the UK government to ensure this new agency does not increase complexity in the funding landscape or duplicate existing provisions.”.


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