What's the alternative?
We also know the UK Government is considering alternatives to continued participation in the EU framework programmes, including a spectrum of possibilities short of full association. Last year’s independent Smith-Reid Review examined these.
The government has yet to respond to the final report from the review, published in November 2019, but crucially a number of the recommendations focus on changes to R&D could be implemented irrespective of the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
The review recommended the introduction of substantial additional funding for basic or discovery research, acknowledging that much funding for this kind of research in the UK originates from the EU.
We agree – whilst it’s great that the government is committed to increasing public investments in R&D to 2.4% GDP by 2027, any future increase must recognise the importance of sustained funding for discovery research. Discovery research is what builds the foundations for truly transformative advances.
Without the discovery that the molecular orientation of liquid crystals could be controlled by applying an electric field, we would not have seen their eventual use in flat-screen displays, an industry now worth billions globally and enabling us to carry cheap, user-friendly screens in our pockets.
Opening a digital shop window
A crucial part of reaching 2.4% is attracting private investment. In our budget submission to Treasury we call for a ‘digital shop window’ that brings together and sets out all available public funding streams and grants, their purpose and source budgets in an easily navigable, transparent way. This will help make clear to researchers, innovators and investors what the UK’s research and development offer is, helping to attract further investment.
We are also calling on government to increase quality related funding (QR) by at least 13% to reverse the recent real terms decline. QR funding is distributed to institutions that take part in the Research Excellence Framework. It provides a flexible source of baseline funding that can be used to support a verity of outcomes. It can be used to train the next generation of researchers, to fund cutting-edge infrastructure or support early career researchers to obtain those crucial initial research results that will help them to win grants in the future.
The forthcoming budget statement represents an opportunity for government to show that they recognise and back the ability of R&D investment to contribute towards ‘levelling up’ regions across the UK. At this stage little is known about the proposed UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UK SPF), which will replace EU structural funds aimed at reducing regional economic and social disparities.
Evidence shows that funding R&D via EU structural funds enables universities to work with local SMEs, supporting their development. The UK SPF needs to support R&D across the UK at a scale at least equivalent to that of European structural funds.
It’s now less than 2 weeks until the new Chancellor delivers his budget statement. We’ll be watching closely to see whether the announcements made match our asks on providing the holistic support to R&D and education that will make sure that the UK continues to be both a global R&D partner and leader.