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U.K. Chancellor of the Excheque rRishi Sunak announced a budget on 11 March with big increases for science.

REUTERS/Toby Melville

UK cues up big funding increases for R&D

The United Kingdom will increase public funding for research and development by 15% in the next fiscal year, its largest year-on-year increase ever, according to budget plans unveiled today. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government plans to ramp up R&D spending even faster over the next 3 years, more than doubling the current total to £22 billion by 202425.

"This is an ambitious program and a huge investment in a short period of time," Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said in a statement. "In a welcome move, the Government has supercharged public investment in science, delivering investment faster and further than it had promised." But some observers worry that the government may be opaque in how it decides to allocate the massive funding increases.

In 2017, the U.K. government pledged that within 10 years the country would increase spending on research and development—public and private combined—to reach 2.4% of gross domestic product (GDP), the average of economically developed countries. The United Kingdom currently lags behind and was at 1.7% of GDP in 2017.

Last year, the Conservative Party said it would double public funding in R&D, bringing it to £18 billion by 2024–25. (The government's fiscal year runs from April to April). Today, however, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said the government would be more aggressive, raising the figure to £22 billion. Under that scenario, public R&D spending would be 0.8% of GDP in 2024–25, according to economic forecasts in the budget plan—more than the United States, China, Japan, or France, Sunak said in a speech to Parliament today.

To reach the overall goal of 2.4%, however, the private sector will need to increase its R&D spending from £26 to £44 billion. The government will try to stimulate this investment by putting £200 million in a life sciences venture capital fund and spending £900 million on grants to foster business innovation. (The timeframes were not announced, but Johnson's party will remain in power for the remainder of Parliament's 5-year term.)

"It's definitely a positive step, but success is not going to come about just from sweetener deals," says James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at the University of Sheffield. Companies will have to invest more, despite the economic risks posed by Brexit. "That's the greatest uncertainty for the 2.4% target," Wilsdon says.

The budget plan lays out the big picture for the 4 years up to 2024–25. Details will be released this fall, after a comprehensive spending review. But the plan does highlight priority areas for R&D investment, including electric vehicles, space technology, and nuclear fusion. The government listed several specific investments (see table, below).

Highlights from the budget plan

Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to double spending on research over the next 5 years, and boost total private and public spending on R&D to 2.4% of the country's GDP by 2024-2025.

Funding (millions)Time (years)Purpose
£1400 10Upgrade government's animal health science facility
£900?Business innovation, including space and nuclear fusion technology
£800?High-risk, high-reward funding agency modelled on ARPA
£4001Research and infrastructure, particularly in basic and physical sciences
£300 5Math research fellowships to attract global talent
£200?Health and life science venture capital fund
£1806New storage and research facility for the Natural History Museum
£805Specialist institutions including the Institute of Cancer Research
U.K. government

The government will top up funding for the 2020–21 fiscal year, which starts next month, by spending an extra £400 million on research infrastructure and equipment, concentrating on basic research and the physical sciences. Wilsdon sees this top-up as a logical way to prepare for the ramp-up in spending after next year.

Wilsdon and others would like more details. “I’m concerned about how decisions were made about the allocation of all this money, and what that means for future decisions about the funding of science," said neuroscientist Colin Blakemore of the City University of Hong Kong, in a statement. In particular, he cited questions about the basis for investing £1.4 billion to upgrade a government animal health research facility in Weybridge.

Blakemore has the same question about a planned British Advanced Research Projects Agency (BARPA), modeled on the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which aims to commercialize promising technologies. BARPA has been promoted by Johnson's top adviser, Dominic Cummings, and plans to create it were announced in October 2019. The Conservative Party said in its campaign manifesto last November that it would spend £800 million over 5 years to stand up the agency. That funding was confirmed in the budget plan today, but it contained no details, such as when BARPA might launch or where within the government it will be located.

Overall, science leaders are enthusiastic. Jim McDonald, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, highlighted the potential payoff of BARPA in a statement: "Radical, out-of-the-box thinking, if properly funded and executed, could boost local economies, create new and sustainable jobs and address global challenges, while creating new opportunities to improve people’s lives in every part of the U.K."