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What might recent political developments mean for R&D?

01 Nov 2022

Our Assistant Director, Daniel Rathbone, considers the latest political developments and what this might mean for R&D

Since I wrote my last piece on CaSE comment just two weeks ago, everything has changed (again!). We now have a new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and it looks like George Freeman is back at BEIS as Science Minister.

A new Prime Minister

Rishi Sunak becomes Prime Minister having been the Chancellor who set out significant increases in public R&D investment in the 2021 Spending Review. His commitments as Chancellor showed that he understands that stability of intent, supported by sustained investment, is vital to help research and innovation thrive in a way that improves people’s lives and livelihoods. In order to reap these rewards we will be urging him to re-commit to the R&D funding promised in that spending review.

However, circumstances have changed significantly since that spending review. As a result of the misadventures of the Truss Government on top of the after-effects of the pandemic and a growing cost of living crisis, we find ourselves in a tough financial climate. Despite this, the value of R&D to long term growth shouldn’t be forgotten. There is extensive evidence that public investment in R&D provides significant economic returns, which we have summarised in our one page briefing on R&D and economic growth.

Big decisions will need to be made about future Government spending and investment in the coming days and weeks and the PM will need to take a long term view on investment in research and innovation capability. It is not a tap you can turn on and off. History has shown that withdrawal of investment from areas of science has set the UK back for a generation, taking decades to rebuild national capability and talent.

We have written to the Prime Minister setting out our views and the value of R&D in securing economic growth. We also wrote to the chancellor Jeremy Hunt two weeks ago. We will continue to press these arguments both in public and behind the scenes in the run-up to the Autumn Statement on 17 November.

A new Science Minister

There was some confusion last week as both Nusrat Ghani and George Freeman tweeted that they were pleased to be re-appointed as Science Minister. After some speculation that there would be two Science Ministers with some kind of split portfolio, George Freeman tweeted that there would just be one minister alongside a list of his priorities in the role. This seems to confirm that Freeman is back as Science Minister, although the portfolios have yet to be confirmed by BEIS, something that often takes a few weeks.

At this time of difficult decisions within Government and with, as Freeman himself set out, a long list of decisions for the new Minister to make, Freeman will need to continue to be strong champion of investment in research and innovation capability within Government. It is clear that George Freeman is deeply knowledgeable and passionate about the sector and hopefully this will be to our benefit over the coming weeks.

Alongside funding, international collaboration will be essential to deliver the UK’s R&D ambitions. We continue to press for association to Horizon Europe as an immediate priority. As our director, Sarah Main, told the Science and Technology Select Committee a few weeks ago, we have heard again from our members and others across the R&I sector that association is very much still the preferred outcome. In the unhappy event that the UK is unable to associate, it will be critical that the budget set aside for Horizon is invested elsewhere in R&D, protecting and stabilising the sector, while alternative programmes are developed. CaSE is working with BEIS to ensure engagement with the research sector in the vital process of development and communication of any long-term alternatives.

There has been good progress in supporting R&D from successive Conservative Governments. Hopefully the political turbulence, which has meant many decisions have gone un-made, will now settle down and we will see the new administration stay the course plotted and allow the country to reap the rewards.