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George Freeman backs Labour’s plan for long-term R&D funding

Former science minister supports 10-year research budgets and discusses visas, culture wars and UKRI leadership

George Freeman, who resigned as the UK’s science minister in November, has given his backing to Labour’s promise to set 10-year research budgets if it wins the next election.

In a wide-ranging interview with Research Professional News, Freeman said he agreed with Peter Kyle, the shadow science secretary, who said at the Labour Party conference in October that 10-year budgets for agencies such as UK Research and Innovation would “create certainty” for the sector.

“I agree with Peter Kyle—we can’t run a serious long-term science and technology strategy on short-term Treasury funding cycles,” Freeman said, adding that any serious science and technology investor would raise long-term money and fund milestone outcomes. “The Treasury should support that,” he said.

UKRI and others have pushed for longer-term budgets that are not tied to the Comprehensive Spending Review cycle, in which government agencies must pitch to the Treasury every three years or so.

The former science minister said that reform of the spending review approval process is “urgent” for the UK’s science, research, technology and innovation agenda.

After stepping down from his ministerial role, Freeman said he wants to build cross-party consensus as manifestos are being drawn up. “This year I am keen to help the sector set out a strong coherent vision and build a strong cross-party coalition around the science superpower mission,” he said.

Brain drain concern

Freeman also said he was “really worried about the brain drain in science and technology” and that the UK “will never be a science superpower behind a Home Office visa paywall”.

“We need the Home Office to focus on tackling illegal human trafficking, not stopping PhD students,” he said.

There are widespread concerns that recent changes to the UK’s immigration regime are making it harder to attract top international researchers to Britain. The changes include a hike to the NHS surcharge that is paid annually by foreign nationals in the UK.

This week, science secretary Michelle Donelan told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that following rising NHS costs, “we’re asking people to make a fair contribution”.

Freeman said that both his former department and the Department for Education “absolutely understands the importance” of researcher mobility. 

Culture wars and UKRI leadership

Over the past days a libel scandal concerning Donelan has exploded after the science secretary made false allegations in a letter to UKRI about a member of an expert advisory panel on equality, diversity and inclusion. On Tuesday, she apologised for posting the letter on social media, which led to a £15,000 legal settlement paid by the taxpayer.

Freeman said: “On wokery, I’m pleased the secretary of state has apologised. Whilst I share her concern about some of the creeping equality, diversity and inclusion tick-box compliance culture, we don’t need a culture war in science.”

He also said that he supported comments from John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, who said in the Financial Times that a change of leadership at UKRI from June 2025 provides “real opportunities” for a new chief executive with business experience.

In January, Research Professional News broke the story that UKRI chief executive Ottoline Leyser—a plant biologist from the University of Cambridge—will not seek a second term of office.

Freeman said that with research and innovation recognised as fundamental to economic prosperity, “the leadership can’t just be traditional academic administration—it has to be able to lead and coordinate that broader mission of unlocking industry and venture co-investment, regulatory leadership and global impact”.

“I support John [Bell]’s call for a more businesslike, more focused, accountable, output-orientated delivery culture in UKRI, and there are plenty of people now in the UK who have the proven skills in delivering long-term science, research, technology and innovation leadership in a way that delivers major economic benefit,” Freeman said.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight