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GO Science review of Government Science Capability

06 Jan 2020

Assistant Director Daniel Rathbone takes a look at the recently published Government Science Capability Review by the Government Office for Science

In our work on R&D investment we have always made the case that the Government’s target to increase research intensity needs cross-Government buy-in from all departments. It will never be reached if it only the responsibility of BEIS and UKRI. And it is not just about reaching the target, there is great potential for R&D investment to directly benefit delivery of public services by government, supporting more effective and efficient policymaking and public service delivery. Departmental R&D budgets can be used to mitigate risk and use resources more efficiently, for example by identifying policy interventions that reduce the severity of road traffic incidents in cities or help prevent and respond to adverse weather conditions and disease outbreaks.

However, despite the potential of departmental R&D budgets to help achieve Government objectives, from 2005 to 2016 overall civil departmental R&D spending fell 30% in real terms, excluding BEIS and its predecessors and the NHS (NIHR). Over the same time period Ministry of Defence R&D spending fell 40% in real terms. For a significant number of departments, including those that have traditionally been some of the biggest departmental funders of R&D, the departmental R&D budget has fallen more than the departmental day-to-day budgets. Defra, for example, saw its day-to-day budgets cut by 31%, but has seen a much more significant drop of 72% in its R&D investment.

Therefore, we welcome the review of Government Science Capability published by the Government Office for Science just before the start of the election campaign. It contains a series of recommendations for how science and R&D can be better utilised across government to improve policy outcomes. Here I will highlight a few of what I think are the most important recommendations. We hope that all Government departments take up all the report’s recommendations. 

Recommendation 2 says that all departments should publish, and refresh annually, Areas of Research Interest documents. This is something we have called for in our briefing ‘Building on Scientific Strength’. While good progress has been made on Areas of Research Interest for each department more can be done to make the most of these across all departments. It is also welcome that the recommendation states that GO Science and CSAs should ensure these documents are consistent across departments – this will help external researchers to navigate the research needs of Government and identify opportunities.

Recommendations 3 and 4 relate to Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs) and how they can be better deployed as a significant resource for Government R&D. This is something we welcome. In recent years PSREs have been part of the UKs research landscape that have been less integrated into the wider research sector and have not always been exploited to their full potential.

Recommendation 8 says that submissions by departments to the Treasury ahead of spending reviews should include a statement of research and development need and that if there are significant deviations from planned expenditure on R&D this should be discussed with the Treasury and the GCSA. This will help give a central overview of spending on R&D across all Government departments and it will be easier to spot and reverse reductions in spending on R&D by departments. Recommendation 15, which says that the Government Digital Service should create a platform to log all R&D projects in a single database, will also help with this.

Overall this is a comprehensive and welcome report with good recommendations on improving the use of science and R&D evidence across Government. With all the positive announcements by the Conservative party about the importance of R&D to the UK economy during the election campaign, we hope that they will also recognise its importance to Government and act on the recommendations in this report.

You can read the full report on the GO Science website.