Go back

All tomorrow’s parties

The government’s vision for UK R&D requires a clearer focus on today

The new year kicked off with science as the focus of one of Boris Johnson’s beloved transport-related images, as the prime minister set out his vision of the UK as “an engine for the ideas of the future”. To get to this point, however, the government must first deal with two huge hangovers from the recent past: the lack of a detailed spending plan and, of course, Brexit.

The government’s first budget, due to be outlined in March, will be closely watched for steps that set annual public research spending on a path to double to £18 billion within five years, the rapid rise pledged by Johnson before the election. Meanwhile, Johnson’s drive to hasten the EU withdrawal bill through parliament has spelt the end for amendments that would have committed the government to securing participation in the EU’s R&D framework, Horizon Europe, and full association to the Erasmus+ exchange programme. The extent to which it will now push for access to these programmes is, putting it charitably, unclear. 

The EU’s new R&D commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, has since reiterated that the EU will not split off research from wider EU-UK trade negotiations, leaving UK researchers facing a prolonged period of uncertainty over future access to these schemes. Given the clear reluctance on both sides to secure association at any cost, the UK government needs to provide greater clarity over how it will avoid a funding hiatus, while discussions take place and in the event they end in researchers’ least desired outcome.

Even if—and it is a huge if—the government can quickly provide more direction over future collaboration with the EU’s science programmes, its hoped-for engine will need a jump start. After three years of their livelihoods hanging in the balance, the willingness of talented European scientists to continue their work in the UK is far from a given. The government needs to swiftly follow its belated expansion of the fast-track ‘exceptional talent’ visa route with much more security for these top scientists, and measures to allow recruitment of research support staff, to counteract the effect of the hostile environment for foreign workers the Conservatives have presided over.

Johnson and his right-hand man, Dominic Cummings, have a vision of a science base that drives economic growth across the UK. But the areas that will be worst hit economically by the loss of EU structural funds are not those most likely to attract huge swathes of research funding—particularly from businesses, whose investment remains resolutely heavily concentrated in the south-east. 

This government, like most, is demonstrably fond of big-ticket project announcements—the latest being the UK equivalent of the US’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, which Cummings has suggested could be located outside London, and the mooted concept of an ‘MIT of the North’ in Leeds. But these projects would be years in gestation, and in the case of the northern MIT, there are huge questions over what exactly it would do that the north’s existing top universities cannot. 

The pressing concern over the coming months will be how much the government is prepared to step in to spur research that will make headlines for tomorrow, rather than today. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight