UK science funding: Horizon Europe and beyond

As a follow up to her recent blog “Superpower status will only come if backed by investment”, Academy President, Professor Dame Anne Johnson PMedSci unpicks the Government announcement of £250 million additional funding towards association to Horizon Europe and the wider picture of the UK’s science funding.

Just before Easter, the Government announced that an additional £250 million will be provided to help cover the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship funding programme. This news offers important reassurance that UK researchers will be able to participate fully in the Programme, without repurposing the UK’s existing science budget to pay for access. I hope UK-based researchers will make the most of this opportunity by applying to Horizon Europe programmes  (more information here), continuing to win funding for discovery research and participating in pan-European collaborations.

This Government has repeatedly outlined its ambitions for investing in UK research and this news should ensure that in 2021/22, UK involvement in EU research programmes will not be met at the expense of existing R&D projects. However, many have been questioning how this additional £250 million will plug the science funding gap which I and many others are concerned about, and what it might signal for the medium-to-long-term.  

We acknowledge these are tough economic times, but the research community still await a detailed breakdown of how the full cost of association to Horizon Europe – expected to be in the region of £1 billion next year – will be covered. At present, we understand that this figure will be met by combining the recently announced £250 million with £400 million of unallocated funds previously earmarked for “Government R&D priorities” and £350 million which had been set aside for domestic alternatives to Horizon Europe – had association not been achieved as part of the UK-EU deal, although we expect the latter may not be confirmed until at least next month [May 2021].

This information is essential as funders need to know their bottom lines to make critical decisions that affect the whole landscape. The last year has posed immense challenges to the funding eco-system for health research in the UK, and the community is craving clarity. Medical research charities are reporting a shortfall of more than £300 million due to the impact of the pandemic on their ability to fundraise and the cuts to ODA have disproportionately fallen on research. These issues remain and, whilst we look forward to the specifics on exactly what impact the recent announcement will have on the wider funding system this year, there are longer-term questions about UK science funding which still need answers.

What we do know, is that the upcoming Spending Review this year will be a critical moment for this Government: they must demonstrate how serious they are about their target to make the UK a scientific superpower, through increasing UK investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 and 3% in the longer term. The scientific community will have all eyes on the Government to see if they can deliver on what UK scientific research needs to flourish: stability and long-term funding.

COVID-19 has truly demonstrated the importance of long-term investment in medical research, as well as how connected the health of all nations is. During the pandemic we have seen science and health research come together at speed and scale to respond to a unique and devastating global health challenge. At the time of writing this [19 April 2020] the UK is witnessing the rollout of a third COVID-19 vaccine, a truly immense and historical achievement from the scientific community. The development and production of multiple safe and effective vaccines exemplifies the extraordinary power of biomedical science and the vital role it plays in helping us understand and respond to this virus. And yet, at a time when the importance of medical research has never been more visible, our sector has been shaken by uncertainty in funding.

This has meant halted projects, fewer research opportunities and scientists leaving the sector. Last winter the AMRC calculated that since the beginning of the pandemic, over 60% of charities have had to cut or cancel support for early career researchers and skilled research roles. Just recently the Academy was asked to cease all calls for new ODA activity and only prioritise existing activity. Sadly, these are just two of many examples of the effects of reduced funding.

To harness the momentum behind scientific discovery and innovation, we need assurance and a clear funding trajectory that allows institutions and researchers to plan ahead. The brilliant people behind life-saving medical research need confidence that funding will continue to be available for them to pursue their research. The Government should use the opportunity of the next Spending Review to set out their plans for investment up to 2024/25, by which point they have committed to increase R&D funding from the current figures of just shy of £15 billion to £22 billion annually. This would give public funders, including UKRI and the NIHR the certainty they need to make long-term investments and allow research to thrive.

Government must go further though and should recommit to investing in our international partnerships, including those which have suffered the most due to the damaging ODA cuts as well as providing tailored support for medical research charities.

We need the Government to provide a clear strategy for a prosperous future for the UK’s science funding landscape which can in turn contribute to the future health of the public and our economy. I look forward to working with the Government to ensure that the decisions made this year match their ambition to “double public investment by 2024/25” and inspire the confidence of UK researchers and our international partners.

-ENDS-

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