Ahead of the Chancellor’s Budget Anna Scaife, Co-Director at Policy@Manchester and Professor of Radio Astronomy in the School of Physics and Astronomy at The University of Manchester, highlights the need for government to increase funding for fundamental scientific research in the UK.
- The UK lags behind most of the world in terms of its research and development spending
- It is vital that innovations developed at Universities are commercialised successfully
- For a healthy eco-system of innovation in research, there needs to be a balance between fundamental and industrially driven scientific research
- Over the past decade, fundamental scientific research in the UK has been given a huge boost by European programs – without a real term increase from government the loss of EU funding will send UK research over a cliff edge
- In order to maintain a buoyant research eco-system, we need a discussion about blue skies research funding
- UK policy needs to recognise that industrially focused R&D stimuli alone are not sufficient to sustain innovation
The case for research and development in the UK
With the Autumn Budget just around the corner, there are high hopes for enhanced government spending on research and development (R&D). Today the government responded by making a pre-budget announcement for a £2.3B boost to R&D spending due in 2021/2022. Whilst this is good news, the government’s long-term ambition of 3% of GDP for R&D still seems a long way off and the UK continues to lag behind most of the developed world in terms of its R&D investment. Of that 3%, the vast majority (70%) is expected to come from private or charitable investment – requiring an increase of 50% compared to the current level, which again is low compared too much of the rest of the world.
Many people have raised the prospect of policy changes that support improved research commercialisation as a key element of developing private investment in UK R&D. Universities UK (UUK) have highlighted the current problems of raising financing for spinouts and the (lack of) availability of early-stage capital. They believe these issues could be addressed via increased funding for industrial partnerships, training in entrepreneurship and support for additional risk capital and tax relief to accelerate spin-out development.
These sentiments are echoed by the Russell Group who has also called for an increase in funding to support knowledge exchange between business and universities. The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) made a strong argument for an increase in public R&D funding in order to drive additional private investment. They recommend the introduction of an interim milestone of 0.7% GDP of public funding for R&D by 2022 to front-load the necessary increases required to achieve the initial target of 2.4% GDP total R&D investment by 2027.
Ensuring the success of University Innovations
Although the emphasis in these recommendations is clearly on industrial/industrially linked research, the idea that we should provide enhanced support for commercialisation inherently recognises that fundamental scientific research also has a part to play in innovation. The most often cited example of this is the world-wide web (invented by particle physicists).
More recently, graphene – discovered in a lab at The University of Manchester by condensed matter physicists – is anticipated to be the basis for a global market worth £500M by 2020. The patent on WLAN (that’s WiFi to most people) netted AU$430M before it expired in 2013, and is now used in more than 5 billion devices worldwide – not bad for something invented by a bunch of astronomers. Societally, the world-wide-web and WiFi were revolutionary: you’re probably using them both to read this article right now.
In light of this innovation potential, both UUK and the Russell Group have a highly valid point: when such discoveries are made (big or small) it is crucial that we can commercialise them successfully.
However, there is no point investing heavily in commercialisation of research if we destroy the underlying research base in the process. Fundamental science drives sustained innovation, but with such a strong focus on industrially driven research we are now in danger of quietly eroding the wider base of UK science through neglect. To labour a metaphor, there is no point building a research commercialisation castle on scientific foundations that are left to crumble into sand.
Funding after Brexit?
For a healthy eco-system of innovation in research, there needs to be a balance between fundamental and industrially driven scientific research. But, at a time when public confidence in experts is eroded by populist politics and government is under pressure to demonstrate immediate economic return and societal benefit from public spending, how do we motivate spending on the fundamental blue-skies research that maintains such a balance? With the advent of Brexit this should be a crucial question for UK policy makers, but unfortunately blue-skies science seems to have become the elephant in the room.
Over the past decade, fundamental scientific research in the UK has been given a huge boost by European programs such as those administered by the European Research Council (ERC), who ar capable of demonstrating the high impact of their funding not only scientifically but also economically and socially.
Taking advantage of this extra injection of support from the EU has allowed the UK to place itself at the forefront of international science both in terms of executing scientific programs and in terms of recruiting top scientific talent. Within the UK itself, pure research funding (RCUK resource) is potentially stagnated at a 2015 level until 2020. A sobering thought when faced with the prospect of losing access to the ERC and other H2020 funding programs. There is of course scope to increase this: the 2016 Autumn Budget announced an exciting additional £4.7B of R&D funding, split between the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) and “funding to increase research capacity and business innovation, to further support the UK’s world-leading research base and to unlock its full potential”. The latter part of this rather vague statement could hold the key to restoring the research eco-system balance, and today’s announcement of a further £2.3B could cement that ambition. If not, without a real-term increase at home, loss of EU funding will send UK research over a cliff edge.
A long-term innovation based R&D economy
Quite aside from a desire to advance the sum of human knowledge, there are a number of economic and societal reasons why policy makers should not let this happen. Understandably, there is only so far that private investment is willing to go in funding blue skies research, but support for this sector is a necessity if we want to maintain a strong innovation-based R&D economy in the long-term. It is necessary not only for providing a balanced research environment, but also to sustain a healthy skills base. Confidence in future hiring prospects for high-skilled jobs in the UK is already low.
This is of particular concern when faced with the expectation that the 70% of increased R&D spending required from private investment will undoubtedly need not only investment from UK-based business but also increased foreign investment. As pointed out by CaSE, global businesses have a choice about where to make their R&D investment and future recruitment will be a key factor in that decision. These days it is impossible to dismiss the profile of fundamental scientific research in terms of raising student numbers in STEM subjects. The so-called “Brian Cox effect” increased the number of applications for undergraduate physics degree courses in the UK by 52% from 2008 to 2012, reminding us that we should not under-estimate the societal impact of scientific wonder.
Ensuring continued success in scientific research
Indeed, the university sector itself, home to the majority of UK fundamental scientific research, is one of the UK’s most successful sectors internationally, generating tens of billions of pounds for the UK economy every year and employing towards a million people. This success is not only due to its teaching quality, but also due to its research reputation. Preferentially funding industrially- and developmentally-linked projects is not enough to ensure the continued success of the UK in scientific research going forward.
In order to maintain the buoyant research eco-system that we currently have means a discussion about blue skies research funding. It means talking about how to replace the opportunities that will be lost if the UK fails to retain access to the EU Horizon 2020 program and its successors or, alternatively, raising the priority of that access in negotiations with the EU. It means talking about how we will retain the 29% of academic staff at UK universities who are non-UK citizens and contribute to our current research excellence. It means talking about how we develop UK funding for fundamental research in line with industrially linked research to support sustained innovation going forward. UK policy needs to recognise that industrial R&D stimuli alone are not sufficient to sustain innovation: we need to talk about blue-skies science.