‘Science superpower’ ambition takes backseat in budget

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly emphasised his desire to make post-Brexit Britain a “science superpower” with strength in areas such as AI, quantum computing and biotechnology. At the heart of this ambition was the pledge to raise annual R&D funding to £22bn; a pillar of Sunak’s first budget. This would make the UK’s R&D spending higher as a percentage of GDP than the US, China, Japan and France.

However, that pledge has been put on hold by two years, as other – likely more political – matters take priority in the budget. The research spending pledge has now been pushed back two years to 2026-27. The government says it remains committed to the overall target.

“We need to do what the people of this country have always done: invent, discover and create the ideas and technologies that will change the world,” said Sunak. “So, we will invest more in innovation. The UK is already a world leader, [but] we want to go further.

“I can confirm we will maintain our target to increase R&D investment to £22bn. But in order to get there and deliver on our other priorities, we’ll reach the target in 2026-27, spending – by the end of this Parliament – £20bn a year on R&D. That’s a cash increase of 50 per cent; the fastest increase ever.”

He confirmed that this £20bn is in addition to R&D tax reliefs, which would increase R&D spending from the OECD average of 0.7 per cent of GDP in 2018 to 1.1 per cent by the end of the Parliament.

Sunak promised that core science funding will rise to £5.9bn a year by 2024-25 (cash increase of 37 per cent), to meet the full cost of associating with Horizon Europe; to establish the new Darpa-inspired Advanced Research and Invention Agency (£800m in funding by 2025-26), and to double Innovate UK’s annual core budget from the start of the Parliament.

He added: “There’s more to becoming a science superpower than just what the government spends on R&D. Innovation comes from the imagination, drive and risk-taking of business.”

In recent days, leading scientists have called for the Treasury to retain its £22bn R&D pledge intact. More than 30 organisations, including Universities UK, the Francis Crick Institute and Cancer Research UK had all urged the government to deliver on its “crucial” investment.

Simon Edwards, director of governance and external engagement at the IET, commented: “It’s disappointing the government has delayed the important R&D target for two years. If we are to remain globally competitive and achieve our net-zero targets, we must prioritise measures now that encourage businesses to invest in R&D in the UK.

“We urge the government to review this decision at the earliest opportunity to ensure we get back on track, not only to help universities and businesses build back better, but also to sustainably grow the capability and capacity of the R&D system to ensure this and future investment delivers the best returns for the economy and society.”

The Campaign for Science and Engineering said in a statement: “The effect of dropping the date of 2024-25 from the £22bn investment target will have a hugely significant impact on the amount of private investment the UK could receive over the coming years. Not only is the target important for the potential for growth it gives to the UK’s research base and in facilitating inward investment, but also in the confidence it will give to the sector that the government is intent on keeping its promises.

“Rowing back on pledges will do nothing to make people believe the UK has serious intentions of becoming a ‘science superpower’. Britain’s science has long been super; now it’s time to turn on the power.”