Go back

A time for science

Image: Chris McAndrew [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The coronavirus pandemic highlights the need to take investment in R&D seriously, says Chris Skidmore

Rarely has the true value of research and innovation come to be as appreciated by the wider public as it is now. Of course, no members of the research community would have wished for their crucial importance to society to be highlighted like this, but a late awakening is better than none.

While some manufacturing companies and university partnerships race to innovate to meet the demand for ventilators, others are busy sequencing the Covid-19 genome, trialling a vaccine and researching antiviral measures that might possibly allay the symptoms of this awful pandemic.

The efforts and research papers of those investigating the behavioural and sociological impacts of the disease are being seized upon quickly and going viral on Twitter.

In science we now trust. The hope of a nation rests on the shoulders of those once dismissed as ‘experts’ as we grasp for a sense of an ending to this crisis. That end is not in sight, nor will it be for some time. But in the days and weeks ahead, the remarkable capacity of humankind to innovate and adapt will be revealed in full: new types of ventilator will be created (see OxVent, for instance), faster testing kits will be developed—and in time, cures will be found and a vaccine developed.

R&D will prove its worth, as it always does, in spades. The answers, when they eventually come, are easy; it is the questions that need to be asked that are invariably the difficult part.

Funding and delivery

So, is a nation that has historically underinvested in research and innovation, in favour of what seemed the easy growth rates of a service economy, prepared to ask those questions now? That economy lies severely weakened—if not in need of an entire reimagining.

Will we now take seriously the importance of R&D investment? Not merely as a ‘nice thing’ to achieve as part of a modern knowledge economy, allowing us to compete with South Korea, China and Germany in new technologies, but rather as an essential part of the fabric of an economy able to respond to future crises, to build capacity and to adapt and innovate?

I’m fully aware of the potential here for ‘coronavirus confirmation syndrome’, so rather than envisaging a brave new world, a richer seam to mine is the future of R&D funding itself. The government has made clear its commitment to increasing the public R&D budget from around £11 billion across government to £22bn by 2025. But the detail of this increase was to have come in the summer with the comprehensive spending review. With this now delayed for the foreseeable, along with the Research Excellence Framework and likely a host of other R&D initiatives, the research community faces its own crisis in the potential consequences of inaction. It cannot afford to wait.

Investment needs to come sooner rather than later. The Treasury must not merely open its coffers but also look again at the delivery of grant funding. Flexibility is vital, as is the ability to use existing funding mechanisms to get money out of the door rapidly.

As I argued in my last speech as science minister in January, quality-related funding is essential—I was the first science minister to fight for and reverse a historic decline in QR—and it should be increased significantly now. A commitment should be made to a real-terms, proportionate, year-on-year increase in QR to match the public funding increase in R&D, so that we see a doubling in QR over five years. At the same time, the entire framework of grant funding for R&D needs to be transformed. The obsession with process, with its inevitable drag on the management of endless waves of funding from a plethora of similar-sounding funding pots, needs to end.

The bureaucracy of the whole thing is so frustrating, the opportunities wasted so pitiful. What matters is outcomes, which could be far better secured if we were to create a single R&D funding framework across a spending review, agile in its approach to netting private R&D and spotting the potential to act as a venture capitalist for new technologies. We cannot simply be satisfied that more money is the answer; now is the time for the research community to step up its fight for fresh thinking about how this money should be spent and how it can get to the front line faster.

International partnerships

If a boost to QR is an immediate priority, so too is maintaining our international research partnerships, because protecting collaboration is as important as investment. The European Union’s R&D funding programme Horizon 2020 is demonstrating its leadership in releasing funds to tackle Covid-19. No doubt there will be delays to its successor Horizon Europe, but whatever fixes are found to deal with the transition between the two frameworks, the UK needs to be around the table. It needs to be there not as a third country but as an associated partner with an association agreement, or at least a commitment to putting one in place.

To withdraw from the most successful international science partnership at a time when the coronavirus has highlighted the importance of international research and collaboration would seem unfathomable to the public.

And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t go further still. Exactly a year ago, I commissioned Adrian Smith and Graeme Reid to work on alternatives to joining Horizon Europe, in preparation for a worst-case scenario in which a no-deal exit from the EU prevented us from doing so. Much has changed since then: we now have a prime minister and a government absolutely committed to R&D for the future, so our ambitions must shift.

The Overton Window for research has shifted so far that we can, as the prime minister is fond of remarking, have our cake and eat it. We need both association to the Horizon programme and the new international funds that Smith and Reid’s review proposes, not least the Agility Fund, which would allow the government to quickly adapt and fund research when opportunities or crises emerge—something that, as we are discovering, is sorely missing.

For now, the world of science, research and innovation is everyone’s world; the hopeful eyes of the nation rest anxiously upon it. But one day the spotlight will recede, as those same eyes focus on rebuilding their own lives. We must seize the opportunity now to ensure that science and research do not return to the shadows, and that their priorities remain a priority for the government and the nation.

Chris Skidmore MP was twice minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation between 2018 and 2020. He has pledged on Twitter to highlight university, student union and student efforts to help tackle Covid-19, under #unisupport