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Skidmore calls for urgent injection of R&D cash

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

Former science minister says coronavirus pandemic highlights the need ‘to take investment in R&D seriously’

The scientific community faces a potential planning blight even as the government has committed to increasing R&D funding from around £11 billion a year to £22bn by 2025, according to a former science minister.

With the spending review and details of that investment now delayed for the foreseeable due to Covid-19, “the research community faces its own crisis in the potential consequences of inaction”, Chris Skidmore writes in an exclusive article for Research Professional News.

“It cannot afford to wait,” he says. “Investment needs to come sooner rather than later.”

Skidmore calls for a boost in quality-related funding “so that we see a doubling in QR over five years”. But money alone is not enough, he says, calling also for simpler grant application paperwork to make funding more efficient.

“The Treasury must not merely open its coffers but also look again at the delivery of grant funding,” he says. “Flexibility is vital, as is the ability to use existing funding mechanisms to get money out of the door rapidly.”

“The entire framework of grant funding for R&D needs to be transformed,” he says. “The bureaucracy of the whole thing is so frustrating, the opportunities wasted so pitiful.”

He says that “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”.

Skidmore also calls again for the UK to associate with the European Union’s R&D funding programme Horizon 2020. “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,” he writes.

In addition, he says, the government needs to implement some of the recommendations of the Smith-Reid review on the UK’s post-Brexit research collaboration.

“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.”

As the public focus turns to science and innovation to find a way past the Covid-19 pandemic, now is the time to make the case for sustained investment in research, he concludes. “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.”