Give us dates, leaders say as £ 22bn pledge balances
Science leaders have called on the Westminster government to set concrete dates on how it will meet its science spending commitment of £ 22 billion by 2024-25.
Testifying before the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Sir John Kingman, former chairman of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), said universities and research institutes “need clarity on budgets in order to that we can plan for the long term ”.
The committee was taking evidence on what was needed to achieve plans for the UK to become a ‘science superpower’ amid concerns that ministers could reverse their pledge to increase investment in the sector during the review spending next week.
The £ 22bn figure is part of the government’s commitment to invest 2.4% of gross domestic product in research and development by 2027. This year’s figure is around £ 15bn sterling.
Sir John said that while he “would be surprised” if the government did not announce a large number, it would be important to clarify when this money could be expected.
If the government were to announce a figure without exact dates it would be “wishful thinking” but past experience has shown that the government “tends to publish figures without exact years,” Sir John told the committee. .
This was supported by Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, who told the committee that if the funding pledge was given only in general terms like “for the future”, it was an empty pledge.
“Science has been underinvested in the UK my whole life. If we had the money we would be absolutely spectacular in science, ”said Sir Paul.
While noting that he was certain the government was in dire financial straits, he said if he did not invest in science, he would not be able to “profit from the ground”.
“We have to invest money to get out of this mess,” he added. “We need a [science investment] strategy that’s broad, ambitious, and exciting, not something just written by McKinsey – something that really includes science. “
Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, added that spending 2.4% of GDP on R&D was still below the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development average. “We are not talking about leapfrog [other countries’ spending],” she said.
Dame Nancy added that it was important to clearly define the spending strategy because “R&D [projects] are not short-term efforts. If we are to keep our commitment, we need people to do so. “
She and other witnesses pointed out that delays in ratifying the UK’s participation in the EU’s next Horizon research program were affecting the UK’s ability to attract top scientists or hampering UK academics wishing to participate in important projects. “As long as there is uncertainty, there are problems,” Dame Nancy said.
Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, agreed. There was growing anxiety about the delay in ratification and academics could not engage in procurement or recruitment negotiations amid uncertainty, he said.
Sir Adrian added that existing research funding should not be diverted to pay for membership in Horizon Europe.
He explained that “there will be a signal sent when the expenditure review is complete, and the nature and tone of it is fundamentally important” – not only to the research and science community, he said, but also for the private sector. “If we don’t have a clear signal that the government is investing, we won’t get this leverage from private investment,” he added.
Sir Andrew Mackenzie, current UKRI president, said he was confident the government had given him a “fair hearing” when he spoke of investing in science, although he added that ” there is still a long way to go to transform strategic aspirations into real politics ”. Sir Andrew also admitted that recent cuts in overseas development assistance had been “a tough pill to swallow”.
“The earlier [science spending] going on a monotonic gradient the better, ”he said.