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The Parliament building in London Leonid Andronov

United Kingdom promises another shot of cash for R&D

After promising a major new investment in science last year, the U.K. government is planning another significant increase in spending. A year ago, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a boost to the government R&D budget that will total £4.7 billion over 4 years. Funding will ramp up each year, by 2020 reaching £2 billion above 2016 levels—a 21% increase. The funding, targeted to applied research, is part of an industrial strategy designed to stimulate the U.K. economy.

Now, Chancellor Philip Hammond is set to announce on Wednesday that the R&D funding will rise by an additional £300 million in 2021. “This gives confidence that the Government’s plan is to keep rising public R&D investment on target over the next 10 years to reach parity with our international competitors,” said Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering London.

During the campaign for the general election this past June, the ruling Conservative party pledged that overall R&D funding would reach 2.4% of gross domestic product (GDP), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average, by 2027 and eventually rise to 3%. The U.K. investment level is now just 1.7% of GDP. 

The new budget is a sign of commitment to keeping that campaign promise, Main says. “They are turning it into real money.” Still, Main points out that the 2.4% goal for 2027 will still leave the United Kingdom behind more generous funders of R&D. The United States puts 2.8% of its GDP into R&D, and Germany 2.9%.

The 2.4% target is for total R&D, not just government funds. So reaching it will depend on robust business investment in R&D after Brexit. Research advocates have consistently listed an open immigration policy as key to keeping the United Kingdom attractive to foreign talent and investment; if either falls after Brexit, R&D could suffer.

The vast majority of the new funding appears to be headed for strategic challenges. The first funding round from last year’s increase included £270 million slated for electric vehicle batteries, drug manufacturing technology, and robotics; £250 million will go to fellowships. The government has never before put this much money into targeted research , and Main says it’s unclear how the targeted funding might affect the wider research community. For scientists working outside the target areas, it may not become any easier to win a grant. A white paper on the industrial strategy, due for release on 27 November, may contain more details about the plan.