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Double or quits?

10 Jul 2017

Theresa May’s manifesto commitments to science spending might fall victim to her weakened position – or it could be her legacy, says Director Dr Sarah Main, writing in Research Fortnight.In the 2015 general election campaign, it was considered radical to push to increase research spending in line with inflation. Bruised by years of flat cash and cuts to capital budgets, many were grateful that the science budget had at least stood still. So for research, the outstanding feature of the 2017 campaign has to be the widespread commitment to eye-watering increases in R&D spending.

The Conservatives, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats all made bold manifesto commitments: Labour to spending 3 per cent of GDP on R&D by 2030; the Lib Dems to a “doubling in the long term”; and the Conservatives to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, with a long-term aim to reach 3 per cent. To put this in context, national R&D expenditure was 1.68 per cent of GDP in 2015.

Assuming that the funding mix remains one-third public to two-thirds businesses and charities, the Conservative commitment is equivalent to doubling the science budget. It would add £4 billion to the annual public spend on R&D, on top of the £2bn extra per year by 2020-21 announced in last year’s autumn statement. This dwarfs the €1.5bn a year the UK receives from the European Union for R&D.

A manifesto commitment is significant, but the Conservatives’ weakened position has already seen flagship commitments swept aside. It would be easy for research to go the way of foxhunting and grammar schools. So, how likely is it that it will be delivered? And what should researchers expect to do in return?

The political logic for an uplift in research funding is strong. Economists are clear that the drivers of productivity are human capital and R&D. The Treasury looks set to back both, through the National Productivity Investment Fund, the channel for the recent boost.

With the government focused on making the country work for everyone, and business secretary Greg Clark’s keen interest in cities, we are likely to see public research investment put to work through the industrial strategy, in an effort to change the fortunes of left-behind places and people.

To read the rest of the article go to Research Fortnight.