More Money for R&D After Scientists Warn on 'Catastrophic Cuts'

Peter Russell

April 05, 2021

The Government announced an extra £250 million to support research and development (R&D) after leading scientists warned of "catastrophic" cuts to research budgets that they said could cost the sector billions of pounds and demolish Boris Johnson's ambition to make the UK a science superpower.

Their concerns centre around a 'triple whammy' of cuts to the Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget, the cost of staying in the EU's Horizon Europe project, and the impact of COVID-19 on funding for medical research charities.

They have warned that the impact will cost jobs and allow the UK's competitors to fill the science gap.

Sir Paul Nurse/Science Media Centre

"Some of the cuts that we have been hearing about would be catastrophic, even existential," according to Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse. Sir Paul, who is chief executive officer at the Francis Crick Institute, said: "It will drive scientists elsewhere, it will destroy networks, it will damage the UK's soft power… to make connections throughout the world, which is of course another policy of government. None of this makes any sense."

Prof Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, warned that unless the cuts were urgently restored, "the damage may be irreversible" and would take years to turn around.

"At stake is not only the reputation of the UK and the credibility of the promises, but really the whole science enterprise and the relationship with the rest of the world," he told a briefing hosted by the Science Media Centre this week.

Funding for EU's Horizon Europe Programme

Concerns were heightened by the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget last month which focused extra spending on recovery from the pandemic but failed to announce provision for the UK's associate membership of Horizon Europe.

Participation in Horizon Europe was agreed as part of the Brexit trade deal. Previously, membership of the research programme's predecessor, Horizon 2020, was paid for out of the UK's contribution to the EU's budget.

Now, scientists are worried that, without a Treasury funding commitment, the cost of membership might have to be met by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the umbrella agency that directs the Government's science funding, from its existing resources.

"I think there's widespread agreement that, working through the numbers, the bill will average about £2 billion per year over the 7 years of the programme," according to Prof Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

Meeting a commitment on this scale without a Government spending promise "will require huge disruption to scientific programmes across the UK science portfolio," she said.

Last week, the Commons Science and Technology Committee published a letter to the Prime Minister in which it expressed alarm about potential cuts.

It welcomed the Government's commitment to increase R&D expenditure to £22 billion a year by 2024-25, and to invest 2.4% of gross domestic product in R&D by 2027.

However, it described as "devastating" any suggestion that the UKRI budget could be effectively cut by almost a quarter, " which would reverse 2 years of intended increases and mean that the ambition for Britain to be a Science Superpower would be deferred for much of this Parliament".

Cuts to Overseas Development Budget

On March 11, UKRI announced a £120 million shortfall for research funded from the overseas development budget for the upcoming financial year as a result of cuts to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy's ODA allocation. It warned that some grants would have to be reduced, and others terminated.

"The problems addressed by international development research are not isolated overseas," commented Prof David Price, vice-provost of University College London. "Raising levels of health, wellbeing, and prosperity in low- and middle-income countries serves the UK's interests too. A 'Global Britain'’ will need trading partners, engaged allies, and nations that recognise our mutual interests."

The cuts had already forced universities to abandon current research projects with international partners, Universities UK said in a letter last month to Boris Johnson.

Prof Julia Buckingham/Science Media Centre

Prof Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, warned of a 'brain drain' without a change of course.

"Once lost, research capacity takes a very long time to rebuild, and the UK will lose ground to other countries in Europe and around the world," she said, noting that the US and China "are currently ramping up their investments in science".

Medical Charities Have Seen a Fall in Funding

Current funding uncertainty for science coincides with a drop in fundraising revenue for medical research charities of 41% due to the pandemic.

The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) said despite reliance on science and the UK's research base to help lift the country out of the crisis, the Government had "chosen yet again not to provide any clear support for charity-funded medical research in the Budget".

Hilary Reynolds, AMRC chief executive, said: "Research has saved millions of lives during this pandemic – now we must save research."

Prof Paul Workman, chief executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, said: "Cutting the UK research budget now would be catastrophic for science – delaying important discoveries, robbing patients of a better future, and missing a golden opportunity to fuel our economic recovery from COVID-19.

"Such deep cuts would be incompatible with the Prime Minister's own vision of the UK as a global science superpower."

Sir Paul Nurse appealed for ministers to protect the UK's science budget. "I am sure the Government will see sense over this," he said. "I mean they cannot possibly not see sense, because it is all so very obvious if you just listen to what everybody has to say. If they can't see sense, they have no right to govern."

£250 Billion Funding

On April 1, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said its allocation of an extra £250 billion took total Government investment in R&D to £14.9 billion in 2021-22, which it said was the highest level in four decades.

It promised that associated membership of Horizon Europe would involve paying a "fair and appropriate" share into the programme's budget. Ongoing UK research projects already awarded under Horizon 2020 would continue to receive funding.

A spokesperson for BEIS said: "We are working with our delivery partners, including UK Research and Innovation, to implement a new research and development settlement for 2021/22 – which includes our participation in Horizon Europe – as part of our wider commitment to maintain the UK's world class reputation for science, research, and innovation.

"In particular, this year alone we will spend more than £10 billion to address poverty, tackle climate change, fight COVID, and improve global health. 

"We are also backing our new Advanced Research and Invention Agency with £800 million to support transformational high risk, high reward science."


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