Earlier this week, the government put science at the heart of its strategy for the UK’s place in the world. In its integrated review, it argued that cutting-edge science and strong leadership from the UK could make a huge difference for humanity. Researchers in the UK could benefit both the UK and the wider world by working to solve global problems such as climate change, antimicrobial resistance and pandemics.
This is completely right – scientists in the UK absolutely can do this. And I’d like to be celebrating the fact that the government has set out this ambitious vision. Unfortunately, the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality.
Countries around the world are investing much more in research and development (R&D) than the UK is. In the US, R&D investment is a major plank of the Biden stimulus plan. In Korea and Israel, they’re spending at twice the rate we are.
The government has committed to increasing R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. But right now it’s not putting its money where its mouth is. If this target is met at all, it will be by the skin of our teeth in the final year. We must instead start right now, not in some distant time beyond the next general election.
Six years away is far too long to wait while we watch others grow their investment. With the pace of change in science and technology, we need to attract and support the best researchers and companies right now. If there’s one thing I’d hoped the UK government had learned from the pandemic, it’s that acting later is far more costly than acting now. The benefits to the economy, to health and to the levelling-up agenda will not be felt until well into the 2030s on this timescale.
But worse still is cutting back when we should be investing. Cuts to overseas aid spending now mean UK scientists abandoning potentially lifesaving new research that they have already started. UK Research and Innovation, the government’s funding body, has written to grant holders to warn them it will now have a £120m hole in its budget. The UK will be reneging on commitments to overseas partners, which is a tragic start to the ambitions of “global Britain”.
And when the Brexit deal secured our continued participation in the EU’s Horizon international research cooperation programme, the research community was immensely thankful. But with less than three weeks until the new financial year, ministers are still arguing with the Treasury about who should pick up the tab. Participation in Horizon was paid for in the past through EU membership fees. And the research funding we got back from it came on top of the government’s research budget. Now, it looks like both will have to come from the same pot, and without that pot getting any bigger. It’s a hidden cut, but it’s huge – more than £1bn this year alone.
I run a global charitable foundation with a mission to help solve the world’s urgent health challenges. Does it matter where the science to do this happens? From one point of view, no – as long as it happens. A footloose academic or a tech CEO would almost certainly take that view and be happy to go to wherever the money is.
But the UK has been a good place to do science, and it should stay that way: for health, for wealth, for fixing regional inequalities. The science and tech industries are drivers of growth, while universities stimulate enterprise, urban regeneration and opportunity around the country.
So there are compelling arguments out of economic self-interest for this. But there are moral ones too, about our place in the world. We can and should take pride in being a global leader and in contributing to the world. The international development funding that we channel through UK universities is a great example, using UK scientific expertise to find solutions to everything from malaria to human trafficking. It is tragic to see these projects start to be cancelled after the aid cuts.
As the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, put it on Tuesday: “We’re talking the talk of science superpower, and now we have to walk the walk. That’s something I remind the PM of constantly.”
And he’s right to do so. He knows the government has the chance to stop the UK falling further behind in R&D, to prove that the government’s ambitions for science are more than just words, and to strengthen the UK’s economy at home and its reputation abroad. There’s so much to gain from turning the “science superpower” ambitions into reality. But we have no time to waste, and we can’t do it by cutting science budgets.
Website of source
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- Quest to land humans on Mars heats up and 5 other top space and science stories this week – CNN
- A new book explores how military funding shaped the science of oceanography – Science News Magazine
- A new guide for communicating plant science – EurekAlert
- Can science help people make decisions? – National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
- Dublin school opens much-anticipated new science, engineering building – The Mercury News
- Wearable sensors that detect gas leaks – EurekAlert
- New York state ends stem cell research funding – Science Magazine