In the midst of a Conservative leadership contest, our Assistant Director, Daniel Rathbone, rates the progress made by the outgoing Government against our Five-point Roadmap to boost science and engineering, and highlights the areas that the new PM will need to prioritise.
The UK’s next PM should build on R&D spending commitments
28 Jul 2022
Last week, a coalition of leading R&D businesses, campaign organisations, universities and charities, including CaSE, urged the Conservative leadership candidates to put research and innovation at the heart of the UK’s future.
Ahead of the 2021 Government Spending Review, CaSE published our Five-point Roadmap to making the UK a ‘science superpower’. Following the spending review, we rated the Government’s choices against our recommendations. With a new PM about to enter No.10, we’re looking back to see how far the UK has come under the outgoing Government, and where the new PM might want to focus their energies.
Now that the groundwork has been laid and longer term increases in investment set out it is time to follow through and reap the benefits for everyone in the UK. Changing course now would damage the UK’s reputation as one of the best places in the world to invest in research and innovation, losing private investment and discouraging the most talented researchers from coming here to build their careers.
Choice 1: Publish a full budget trajectory to make the R&D targets work harder
The past year has seen welcome progress: a three-year spending review allocation for R&D, a long-term settlement for UKRI, and a significant increase in wider Departmental R&D budgets. The new PM must stay the course. This stable, upward trajectory for R&D investment can drive growth across the economy, but only if it has the new PM’s backing. The next step is then to set out how we go from the 2.4% target to 3% of GDP invested in R&D – the level already reached by many other countries, including the United States, Germany and South Korea.
Alongside funding, international collaboration will be essential to deliver the UK’s R&D ambitions. A new Prime Minister has an opportunity to reset relations with the EU. Finalising association to Horizon Europe – a win-win for both sides – would be a great first step. CaSE strongly urges the Conservative leadership candidates to commit to resolving the current impasse and securing association status that will help UK researchers to maintain connections that have taken decades to build. In the unhappy event that association doesn’t happen, it will be critical that the budget set aside for Horizon is invested elsewhere in R&D, protecting and stabilising the sector, while back-up programmes are developed.
Choice 2: Use increasing R&D investment to strengthen the foundations
The three-year settlement for UKRI includes increased ‘core research’ budgets across the research councils and Research England. Recent Research England allocations included a 10.4% increase in QR funding – which helps underpin foundational research across the UK’s universities. It is important that these strong foundations are maintained. A narrow approach to investment leaves discovery research underpowered and unable to deliver the dynamic environment in which mission-driven R&D is able to thrive. Without a strong research base sustained over many years the UK would not have been able to develop a COVID vaccine or ramp up genetic sequencing in such a short space of time.
Choice 3: Channel Science and Technology into all parts of Government
Departmental R&D budgets are increasing significantly in the next 3 years, helping restore many R&D budgets which were slashed in the last decade. A new Office for Science and Technology Strategy (OSTS) has been created to support departmental R&D and deliver value. A new PM should enhance and expand the role of OSTS as a co-ordinating centre, charging it with ensuring policy-making across Government is aligned to deliver a more research intensive UK. OSTS and GO-Science can also support departments and their Chief Scientific Advisers in showing what R&D can do to improve the efficiency of public services, and its role in solving the big policy challenges ahead.
Choice 4: Deliver R&D opportunities for every region of the UK
There has been progress in this area, including a ‘Levelling-up’ white paper in early 2022 and more details on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) being set out. There was an important recognition in the white paper that R&D has a vital role to play in growth and prosperity for all parts of the UK and that R&D investment is being considered as part of this broader package of measures, alongside skills and infrastructure. Our Power of Place report made it clear that improving infrastructure and housing will help equip places for increased research intensity and help to retain skilled people.
Choice 5: Attract the R&D workforce the UK needs for tomorrow
Delivering the ambition of a more research intensive UK will require joining up of skills policy with research and innovation policy across Government. While there has been some welcome progress in areas such as immigration (the global talent visa), in other areas these issues have too often been considered in isolation. Wider skills provision will be needed to meet the requirements of an expanding R&D sector, and ensure that everyone can participate in and benefit from a more innovative UK. A holistic look at skills policy by Government to deliver lasting results, from science teaching in schools and STEM careers advice, through to higher and further education, apprenticeships, lifelong learning, and immigration is essential.
This is the focus of a new piece of work by CaSE to examine the needs and requirements across the skills landscape. Recognising the scale of the challenge, we will draw together some of the important work done by other stakeholders across the sector and our own Inspiring Innovation report, with a view to creating a holistic picture that identifies some of the cross-cutting challenges and pinch points that will need the focus of the new Government.
It is easy to lose sight of the progress made, and to forget that this is ultimately about improving the lives and livelihoods of everyone right across the UK, boosting growth and productivity, something both candidates have talked about during the campaign so far. We have previously looked at the targets and goals set by other R&D intensive nations – and we still have some way to go to match their level of ambition.
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