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Skidmore: My 2020 budget predictions

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

The former universities and science minister previews today’s budget

The budget script has been written, the announcements all nicely bundled into their respective press releases. Of course, some have already been trailed in the weekend papers in a detailed sequencing that is the slickest communications operation of the political calendar.

But the best is yet to come. The ‘rabbit in the hat’ moment, the great reveal—usually placed in the final 30 seconds of a budget speech, giving the opposition spokesperson little time to take it in and respond. It is a masterful display of Treasury efficiency and an operation that usually runs like clockwork. Woe betide any minister or even secretary of state who thinks of making an announcement in budget week.

I’ve been close to the drama, even if it was as a kind of theatre technician, when I was former chancellor George Osborne’s parliamentary private secretary between 2015 and 2016. Four years ago—and what a lifetime that seems—I faced the wall of camera flashes as we all marched out of 11 Downing Street in a neat line for the official photo with the red box.

In my own folder, I held on tightly to the only other copy of the budget speech. I took my place behind the chancellor on the green benches, tracing his spoken words on the text as he went, ready to hand him the replacement script if disaster befell and he lost his page.

Everything had been choreographed and organised to the finest detail—from the orchestrated cheering that would commence once I turned my head as a signal to specially placed members of the Treasury support group of backbench MPs, down to the chancellor’s special beverage, which he would slip from the dispatch box (if you’re asking, for Osborne it was a particular concoction of elderflower cordial and sugar mixed with water to prevent the throat drying up—though I don’t know the exact recipe, which was left to his special adviser Thea Rogers).

Opposition of events

Today’s budget may be overshadowed, to use the historically accurate Macmillan quote, “by the opposition of events”. But there still remain significant expectations, either to be fulfilled or disappointed. Many MPs will be sitting tightly, hoping for even a mention in the chancellor’s speech—a nod to their persistent lobbying. Expect a smattering from across the ‘red wall’.

At the 2016 budget (the one in which I was involved), the geography was rather different. Cornish and south-western Conservative MPs, having won their seats against the odds mainly from the Liberal Democrats, were to be meted out special treatment. To save novice MPs in their attempts to wade through the red book, letters are placed in their pigeonholes during the budget speech, hand-signed by the chancellor, signalling what their constituencies will gain.

Of course, for policy wonks and members of the research community, it is the red book that is the immediate text to turn to as soon as it is made available after the speech. Do the words match the reality of the fiscal analysis? What hidden taxes have been stowed away, buried among the accompanying charts and tables?

Science and research should feature heavily in this budget. After all, what’s not to like about the government’s fantastic commitment to double public R&D spending from £9 billion to £18bn by 2024-25? Don’t expect a full plan for how this money will be spent over the next five years—that’s for the spending review—but there will be an announcement for this next financial year, not least because the science capital budget runs dry on 31 March this year.

Nevertheless, the amount announced will be important, for it will point to the scale of ambition. Ideally, we need the largest public R&D investment that is physically possible to be spent to come as early as possible, pump-priming the private R&D spend that we all know makes up two-thirds of the ‘road to 2.4 per cent’—the steps we need to take to ensure that the UK spends the OECD average on R&D by 2027.

Greatest hits

Some money has already been announced, and will be confirmed or repackaged in any budget announcement, an assembled greatest hits of the past year. So expect the £300-million maths announcement, and possibly the £1.2bn for the Met Office supercomputer, to feature somewhere. Then there’s a number of existing waves of funding, including the latest Strength in Places wave two bids, which are yet to be announced but could make an appearance.

Clearly, “net zero” and more green R&D investments are likely to feature in the budget—this is the year of COP26 and it’s vital we demonstrate to the world our global leadership in climate change science and research.

But look out also for how the government is intending to deliver research, and the agencies and points of contact that it hopes will set the UK apart as world-leading. Yes, we should expect the UK Advanced Research Projects Agency—Arpa, not Darpa—to feature, perhaps setting out a budget for next year when the proposed UK version of the United States Arpa becomes operational from April 2021.

It will need set-up costs to be covered for this year, and I hope it will become clear that Arpa won’t be an institution but must be viewed as an innovation in the R&D funding mechanism itself. How the money will be spent is as important as the amount of money being made available.

Delivering by 2024

But that narrative is for another time. For today’s story, look no further than to one key number—2024. All announcements must come to fruition by then, as the quantum clock points to the gravitational reality of the general election that will take place that May. R&D will need to have started to deliver on its promise of regeneration and redistribution by then.

The living embodiment of an R&D centre emerging Phoenix-like from the ashes of social division seen at Orgreave is of course the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Sheffield. Part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, it helps to provide a template for how we can seek to establish more research institutions with real-life applied and transformational benefit.

The wider network of Catapults is inspirational—trust me, I’ve seen for myself, as the local MP for the National Composites Centre in Bristol, how they can help cluster brilliant minds and brilliant technologies together. But the government investment of just £280m yearly is dwarfed by the £3bn invested in the German Fraunhofer network.

More here please, and fast, will help to deliver on our missions for 2.4 per cent and net zero, encompassing the scientific challenges needed to establish the necessary technologies.

Will any of the above happen? Who knows—the budget is one of the tightest-controlled events in the political calendar. But mark my words, there is no doubt that whatever its content, it will fire the starting gun on this government’s commitment to placing our trust in science and in research.

Chris Skidmore is a Conservative MP and former minister for universities and science.