Government R&D funding: what do the new allocations mean for research?

Academy President, Professor Dame Anne Johnson PMedSci reflects on the recent budget allocation announcement from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Last week [Thursday 27 May] BEIS published a report outlining how it will distribute the £11.35 billion research and development (R&D) budget for the 2021-2022 financial year.

Biomedical and health research remains at the heart of the UK’s COVID-19 response and recovery, however, in recent months our community has been preoccupied by serious concerns about the future of research funding in the UK, and internationally. There have been cuts to Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding, unease about how the UK will fund its association to Horizon Europe and a fundraising freefall for the UK’s medical research charities.

The announcement from BEIS provides more clarity about funds for the coming year, but it remains to be seen how the Government will reach its target to boost R&D funding to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 and realise its ambition of the UK becoming a global science superpower.

Below I outline the impact of these announcements in four key areas.

A positive step for Horizon Europe

I was delighted by the news that the UK will participate in Horizon Europe, the world’s largest collaborative funding programme for research and innovation. I strongly encourage UK-based researchers to make the most of this opportunity by applying to Horizon Europe programmes, and continuing to participate in pan-European collaborations.

The big question, however, was how the UK’s bill for participation would be paid. Ahead of the 2021 Budget in March, I wrote to the Chancellor along with the other National Academies, calling for the UK’s fee to be funded in full, without cutting existing domestic budgets.

I am pleased to see that last week’s BEIS announcement includes an assurance that £1 billion has been set aside to cover the cost of association in 2021/22. To avoid overburdening the science budget in the years to come, it is now important that the Government sets out a multi-year plan for how it will pay for the estimated £2 billion per year association fee over the lifetime of Horizon Europe.

A stepping stone: bridging the medical research charity fundraising gap

Medical research charities are essential to the UK’s research funding ecosystem, accounting for around half of all publicly funded medical research in 2019 and supporting the salaries of over 17,000 researchers.

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on medical research charity income. In 2020-21, two in three Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) charities experienced a drop in income, amounting to a loss of at least £292 million.

Last week’s budget allocation laid out £20 million to support early career researchers whose funding is threatened. This is welcome, but there is still a huge deficit, meaning that research careers, projects and potentially life-saving treatments funded by medical research charities remain at risk. We continue to support calls for Government to minimise these long-term impacts of the pandemic on charity-funded medical research.

ODA cuts are still a threat to Global Britain

The 2020 Spending Review came with the news that the Government would be temporarily reducing Official Development Assistance (ODA), from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income. These cuts have disproportionality affected R&D funding and have long-lasting impacts, threatening our reputation as a credible, reliable, and valued research partner. Once links with our international partners are broken, these could take years to build, undermining this Government’s ambitions to achieve a Global Britain.

We are fortunate that these cuts do not impact current Academy grant awardees, but they do mean that we are unable to open further rounds of our Newton International Fellowship, Newton Advanced Fellowship or Networking Grant schemes, and our internationally renowned GCRF policy workshops will be affected.

Together, the National Academies wrote to the Foreign Secretary to emphasise the importance and value of the research projects supported by ODA. The next Spending Review is an opportunity to mitigate the impact of these cuts and provide the funding needed to support this Government’s ambitions to place science at the heart of its vision for a Global Britain.                                               

Reaching 2.4% and beyond

The Academy strongly supports the Government’s commitment to raise public investment in UK R&D to £22 billion per year by 2024/25, as part of the target to ensure total investment reaches 2.4% of GDP by 2027 and 3% in the longer-term.

Stable, long-term investment is crucial for UK R&D to continue to grow and provide benefits to patients and the public. Previous long-term investments made it possible for UK R&D to play a crucial role in COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutic development, as well as our understanding of COVID-19 variants through our genomic sequencing capacity.

I am pleased the Government is determined to build on the success of the life sciences over the past year, and this means they must make good on their R&D investment targets, using the next Spending Review to set out a multi-year trajectory for how it will reach them.

Looking ahead

The Academy is ready to work with Government to ensure UK medical research has the support and certainty it needs to continue to thrive and provide benefits to society in the years to come.

I am pleased to welcome the Government’s increased commitment to the work of the National Academies. This will help us to continue providing innovative funding and support to researchers and to future scientific leaders, as well as putting public and patient views at the heart of our policy work.

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