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Why I’m the minister for 2.4%

I feel a duty of care to protect the UK’s pre-eminence in research, whatever happens with Brexit, says Chris Skidmore.

I am under no illusions about how crucial the next nine months will be for science and research. Many people are understandably focused on the immediate impact of leaving the European Union, but the spending review and the final shape of future UK immigration rules, following publication of the immigration white paper last year, will also help define the UK’s position within international science and research. If we can deliver successfully on all three of these challenges, we will have the potential to redefine the science and research landscape for generations. 

As the minister responsible for protecting and delivering for our research communities both in the UK and abroad, I want our universities and research infrastructures to continue to be world leading. I want the UK to be seen not only as a destination of choice for international researchers but as a destination that delivers record levels of investment into R&D for the future. This is the year that, as a government, we need to set out a clear destination and a deliverable plan to reach it. 

GDP commitment

Vital to this is our commitment to spending 2.4 per cent of GDP on R&D by 2027. I want to be seen as the minister who made 2.4 per cent happen. It is always at the top of my agenda and will always inform every policy decision that I make. Already we will be spending an additional £7 billion on R&D by 2021-22—the largest increase in spending on research for nearly 40 years—but we can never take our foot off the accelerator.

Our commitment to 2.4 per cent is based on ensuring that we meet the OECD average—and with China recently pledging its own research commitment of 2.5 per cent, we cannot afford to slide backwards.

We all know the value of R&D in leading transformations in productivity, delivering high returns on investment, attracting inward investment and putting the UK in a prominent position on the global stage. There can be no argument that R&D is some kind of ‘white elephant’: it matters, desperately, that we succeed in the challenge that we have set ourselves. 

Leading the debate

As the minister for 2.4 per cent, I want to lead and shape the debate not only about how we reach 2.4 per cent but about how we do so in a sustainable fashion. We must do it in a way that delivers the researchers and international partnerships we need for the future and that recognises both the emerging technologies in which we need to invest and the necessity of attracting industry involvement through venture capital and international investment. In my first speech as science minister at Culham, I set out the significance of 2.4 per cent. I will be setting out my policy vision for how we get there in a series of speeches over the coming months. 

Recent announcements point to the government’s clear commitment to science and innovation as the drivers of our future. I am delighted that the chancellor recognised the importance of science and research in his spring statement—announcing more than £200 million in government research investment, including £81m to fund a super laser facility in Harwell. This truly cutting-edge technology will help scientists see into living cells and create 3D imaging of diseased bone to help find the cures of tomorrow. And with £79m for a supercomputer in Edinburgh and £45m for scientists to analyse complex genomics and molecular biology data sets in Cambridge, we are seeing our modern industrial strategy in action. 

In addition, it was announced that we will publish an international research and innovation strategy that will set out our ambition to remain the partner of choice for international research and innovation. As we look forward, I’m pleased to say that we have also appointed Adrian Smith, director and chief executive of the Alan Turing Institute, to provide independent advice to ensure our frameworks for international science and innovation collaboration are fit for the future, including exploring the establishment of a Discovery Fund. 

International collaboration

The publication of the international research and innovation strategy will set out our ambitions for future international collaboration. This month, we signed up to further our commitment to the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s largest radio telescope, alongside 11 other countries. The UK is investing over £180m in the project, whose headquarters will be based at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. The SKA is an example of how many large science infrastructure projects are becoming truly international. I am determined that the UK will continue to play a leading role in international research and innovation. 

In Oxfordshire, hundreds of national and international experts are working on the Joint European Torus nuclear fusion facility. We have just signed a contract extension with the European Commission that guarantees JET’s operations until the end of 2020, regardless of the Brexit situation, and secures at least €100m in additional inward investment from the EU over the next two years.

That is not the only guarantee to maintain and fund our European research networks that we have provided. We have underwritten existing Horizon 2020 funding in the event of a no-deal Brexit and extended that guarantee for all third-country participation applications until the end of 2020, for the life of the projects. We’re making sure businesses, charities and universities that benefit from Horizon 2020 funding are signed up for the information they need via an online portal and that they will continue to get support should the UK leave the EU without a deal. More than 4,800 higher education institutions and 2,050 businesses, research organisations, public bodies and charities have signed up so far.

Concerns from the community

I recognise concerns from the community about whether the underwrite will cover funding for UK applicants to the ERC Advanced Grants 2018 call. The European Research Council has just announced €540m for cutting-edge research in this round, with 47 UK projects granted funding. This will be underwritten by the UK government in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

In Europe, the benefits of international research collaboration are clearly demonstrated through research infrastructures. These allow researchers from different countries to work together to tackle complex scientific challenges. This is often facilitated by European Research Infrastructure Consortia, or Erics. UK participation in Erics gives UK scientists and companies access to facilities, data, knowledge and contracts that would otherwise be inaccessible. The outcomes of these projects feed into research communities across the UK and beyond, in fields such as marine science, astrophysics, human health and welfare, and societal change.  

I can confirm that the UK will continue to meet the obligations needed for membership of Erics after we have left the EU, regardless of the way in which we leave. This decision will enable UK scientists and researchers to continue working on scientific challenges with our European partners as they do now.  

Immigration rules that work

This week, I set out my vision of the UK’s global education in a speech at the Universities UK forum on international higher education. Universities must be at the heart of the future for international research collaboration, and I was delighted to see our universities maintain and improve upon their world-leading status in the latest QS rankings.

We must do nothing to compromise this: indeed, I want to ensure that universities are able to attract the best minds and talent to work here, which is why we need to ensure that our future immigration rules work for our academic research communities. I will be working closely with the Home Office to ensure that I can deliver on this. 

Research is what the UK does best: our achievements, past and present, are testament to this. With just 0.9 per cent of the world’s population, we continue to lead the field academically. I know that I have a duty of care to protect this position, and indeed to help raise our achievements ever further than before. 

Chris Skidmore is the minister for universities, science, research and innovation.

This article was first published on 31 March as our HE Sunday Reading column. Sunday Reading is part of our premium Playbook service; to find out more contact sales@researchresearch.com 

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight