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Call for next UK leader to boost R&D spending to 3% of GDP

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

Research sector urges Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to protect funding and innovation

The incoming Conservative prime minister must demonstrate their support for UK research and innovation by increasing R&D investment, the Royal Society has urged in a letter with 20 major R&D signatories.

The plea came after Conservative MPs whittled down the leadership candidates to the final two—former chancellor Rishi Sunak and current foreign secretary Liz Truss—with the winner to be announced in September.

In a statement on 21 July with signatories including the national academies, charities, learned societies, universities and business, the Society calls on the leadership candidates to “ensure the UK remains a world leader in research, development and innovation”.

The open letter signed by the British Academy and Royal Societies, the UK BioIndustry Association and the Institute of Cancer Research welcomes a pledge by the current administration to invest £22bn per year in R&D by 2026-27.

But the signatories say that the current investment level of 2.4 per cent of GDP would need to be pushed up to 3 per cent if the country is to “deliver a strong, prosperous and healthy future for our economy and society”.

“This must include a strategic, long-term approach to funding, immigration and the tax system, and continued close collaboration with the international research community,” the letter states.

Relations with EU

It came amid continued concern over the future of UK research funding in lieu of association to Horizon Europe. Reaching an agreement with EU leaders to ensure the UK’s continued membership of the flagship research funding programme must be the “first priority” for the new government, the research leaders say.

Additionally, the next prime minister “must set out a long-term plan for bolstering the UK’s RDI excellence”, the letter continues. “Now is the time to reassert and deliver on plans to make the UK the place to be, maximising the benefits of RDI to the economy and to people’s lives.”

The letter came as the government published its transitional plan for mitigating delays to Horizon Europe association.

Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, said the plan “reaffirms the government’s commitment to its manifesto pledges to invest in science and maintain the UK’s world-leading position in research and innovation. We look forward to the ongoing support of the UK’s next prime minister.”

Other sector leaders also highlighted the importance of support from the incoming prime minister.

Daniel Rathbone, assistant director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said: “A new prime minister provides an opportunity for a reset in EU relations. Finalising association to Horizon Europe—a win-win for Europe and the UK—would be a great first step. CaSE strongly urges the Conservative leadership candidates to commit to finding a resolution that allows the UK to associate, and we welcome the statement today that association is still the government’s preferred choice.”

Freeman and Donelan

The latest round of voting in the Conservative leadership race saw Penny Mordaunt eliminated. She had been backed by former science and universities ministers George Freeman and Michelle Donelan.

Freeman has since tweeted that he would back “whoever as prime minister will best put science, technology and innovation at the heart of our economic plan: investing in world-class science; applying UK S+T for global good; global visas and fellowships; backing regional R+D clusters”.

Donelan said she was “proud” to have supported Mordaunt, as “she would have made a brilliant PM and shares my vision for an education system that transforms people’s lives”. But she added: “We have two fantastic candidates now, I will be looking carefully at their education plans and their focus on delivery.”

Here is what we have learned so far about the two would-be prime ministers and their thoughts on research investment, based on their statements in the past week.

Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak has pledged to continue the current government’s agenda of cutting back on EU regulation to unleash innovation.

In an ITV debate on 17 July, he stressed that innovation and science would help the UK to reach its net-zero targets in a way that was good for the economy.

His plan for growth would involve “investment, innovation and education”; investment in business and innovation to lead the world in the “industries of the future, like life sciences” and education, “because our children’s education today is our economy tomorrow”.

This push came with a promise to slash regulation—Sunak wants to “capitalise on the freedoms” and “ditch” various laws “holding us back”.

That might mean that the ongoing reviews of red tape in R&D would receive a warm welcome from Sunak if they recommended simplifying procedures, although he has not mentioned them specifically.

Sunak has specifically pledged to scrap the General Data Protection Regulation. He blames these “Byzantine rules” from the EU for “preventing British tech companies from innovating”. He has also promised to speed up clinical trials approval, “which is still complicated and slowed down by EU red tape”.

On the net-zero target, he told the ITV debate: “I think we can get that in a way that is about growth; it’s about jobs, it’s about the industries of the future, and that’s the way to do it.”

Liz Truss

Grassroots favourite Liz Truss says she supports levelling up and better education.

She said: “I want us to be an aspiration nation, where people from all backgrounds and all parts of the United Kingdom have the opportunity of a great education, [are] able to start their own businesses and realise their dreams.”

Truss wants to “cut taxes to help businesses invest in their future” and to “create new low-tax and low-regulation zones to attract investment in communities up and down our country…creating new hubs for innovation and enterprise”.

Like Sunak, she is keen to get rid of EU regulation to “get our economy moving”. For example, she would overhaul the EU’s Solvency II rules “to liberate more of our pension funds to be able to invest in high-tech startups”.

On climate issues, she is in favour of fracking and nuclear power.

“We need to be doing all we can to lower the cost of energy for consumers,” she told the Sunday Telegraph. “I support the net-zero objective, but we need to reach net zero in a way that doesn’t harm business or consumers.”