The research community has broadly welcomed the UK government’s funding plans for research and innovation announced in the chancellor’s Autumn Statement. An additional £2bn/year to 2020-21 for R&D represents a real-term increase in the research budget, a positive sign when economic outlook predictions are relatively gloomy.
The new spending is part of a broader National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) of £23bn. From this, £4.7bn will go to science and innovation between 2017 and 2021. The extra annual spend will increase year-by-year to: £425m in 2017-2018; £820m in 2018-2019; £1.5bn in 2019-2020; and finally an extra £2bn in 2020-2021. After housebuilding, it is the largest segment of new spending in NPIF. Technologies benefitting include robotics, artificial intelligence and industrial biotechnology.
The government will channel some of the money through a new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, a new cross-disciplinary fund to support collaborations between business and the science base, which will ‘set identifiable challenges for UK researchers to tackle’. The fund will be managed by Innovate UK and research councils. Modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) programme, it will cover a range of technologies, to be decided by ‘an evidence-based process’. There will also be a ‘substantial’ increase in grant funding via Innovate UK.
For business, the government has committed to cutting corporation tax to 17% by 2020, ‘by far the lowest in the G20 and benefitting over 1m businesses.’ It will also invest £400m through the British Business Bank to invest in innovative firms, to provide the finance that they need to expand. This will support up to £1bn of new investment. There will also be a review of the tax environment for R&D, which could enhance incentives for investment.
Other news includes a £390m investment in future transport technology, including driverless cars, renewable fuels and energy efficient transport. This will include £100m investment in testing infrastructure for driverless cars; £150m for at least 550 new electric and hydrogen buses, to reduce the emissions of 1,500 buses and support taxis to become zero emission; and £80m to install more charging points for ultra-low emission vehicles.
‘This is good news for science,’ says Alice Gast, president of Imperial College London. ‘The chancellor has recognised that investing in research and innovation is the best way to raise productivity. We welcome the recognition of the potential impact of long-term investment in science and innovation. From robotics and artificial intelligence to biotechnology and advanced materials, the UK is well-placed to lead the next generation of scientific discovery and opportunities for growth.’
Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), agrees. ‘There are exciting possibilities for this substantial new investment in research: new ideas, inventions, improvements in quality of life, and innovative businesses and jobs. This is a really considerable vote of confidence in science: it is £2bn/year of new money for R&D, to be managed and overseen by researchers through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Let’s make sure we use it well.’
The government has recognised the importance of research and innovation to economic growth and to meeting the big, global challenges, comments Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent. ‘[This funding] will also help strengthen the links between UK university research and business,’ she adds. ‘Our international competitors have been increasing their spending in this area, so this announcement will help maintain the UK’s position as a global leader in research and innovation.’
However, while applauding the Autumn Statement for its promise to increase funding in R&D, the campaign group Scientists for EU, points out that the amount falls far short of the widely recommended 3% GDP target. Currently, the UK spends 1.6% of GDP on R&D (public and private investment), it says; this increase will take the UK to 1.7%, while leveraging private funds might bring it to 1.8-2.0%. ‘Science investment is inching in the right direction rather than striding,’ says Mike Galsworthy, co-founder of Scientists for EU.
Rob Davidson, co-founder of the group, is still concerned about the future of UK universities, which are ‘suffering from the perfect storm of austerity and Brexit’. Galsworthy and Davidson believe a key factor in the UK’s strength in science is the country’s role in ‘the science engine of the EU’ and multinational European networks. They would like to know whether the government intends to prioritise buying back into those networks after Brexit. If so, will the necessary funds come from the new £2bn? ‘We note the current inflow from the EU to UK science is around £1bn/year and rising, and that UK international collaborations produce 40% more citation impact than UK domestic-only research. To buy back into the EU science programme may cost more than this figure.’
Julie Tam, assistant director of policy at Universities UK, raises another interesting point. The chancellor pointed out that no other major developed economy has such a gap between the productivity of its capital city and its second and third cities. More balanced growth across cities and regions presents ‘immense opportunities’ for universities, she says, which could help build stronger links to facilitate access to overseas markets and spur local growth.