Superpower status will only come if backed by investment

Our President, Professor Dame Anne Johnson PMedSci, reflects on the science funding landscape and what it means for the vision of the UK as a science superpower

On 16 March 2021, the UK Government launched their Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy: Global Britain in a Competitive Age. At the centre of this vision is the ambition for the UK to become a scientific superpower. The research community stands ready to turn that vision into reality, but it requires the Government to follow up their ambitions with a sustained commitment to real investment.

Recently, we celebrated the long-awaited and very welcome news for UK research and development (R&D) that the UK will associate to Horizon Europe – the EU’s flagship research funding programme – and an uplift for the science budget for 2021/22.

However, this positive news has been overshadowed by the very concerning possibility of using existing budgets to pay for Horizon Europe association, which would leave the overall pot for UK R&D reduced by a reported £1billion. The UK already invests a lower proportion of GDP in R&D than other leading scientific nations, so if this becomes reality, the Government’s talk of the UK becoming a science superpower will begin to ring hollow.

In addition, we are now facing significant cuts to research funded by the Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget that will significantly affect live grants, halting new and potentially lifesaving research. These cuts will cause serious and lasting damage to international relationships and the UK’s reputation, both of which could take years to rebuild.

All of us working in research understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on the economic outlook and that difficult decisions must be made. But the pandemic has also demonstrated why investing in research is so important, and how UK science can step up to play its part on the global stage.

At the Academy of Medical Sciences, we have been working hard to try to protect ODA-funded R&D and the science budget. In December, I wrote,  along with the other National Academies to the Foreign Secretary on the value of ODA-funded research, and again in March to the Chancellor on the need to protect the science budget as we fund participation in Horizon Europe. We also advocated for ODA-funded R&D, Horizon Europe funding and support for medical research charities in the run up to both the 2020 Spending Review and 2021 Budget. We will continue to make the case for science funding by engaging with networks across government and meeting Ministers to discuss what it truly means – and looks like – to be a science superpower.

As Government seek to bring about the vision of Global Britain, it is essential that R&D is supported to play the starring role I know it can. We will continue to challenge Government to ensure UK R&D has everything it needs to support the health and wealth of the public here, and globally.


Read more about the Academy's work on funding and regulation here

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