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A time for science

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

Coronavirus has highlighted the need to take R&D investment seriously, says Chris Skidmore

Rarely has the value of research and innovation been as appreciated by the wider public as it is now. No one in the research community would have wished for their worth to be highlighted like this, but a late awakening is better than none.

The hopes of a nation devastated by coronavirus rest on the shoulders of those once-dismissed experts. The end will not be in sight for some time. But in the days and weeks ahead, humankind’s capacity to innovate and adapt will
be revealed in full: new types of ventilator will be created—such as the OxVent model created by medics at the University of Oxford and King’s College London—faster tests will be developed and, in time, cures and a vaccine will be found.

R&D will prove its worth, as it always does. The answers, when they come, are easy; the difficult part is finding the right questions.

Weakened economy

So, is a nation that has historically underinvested in research and innovation, in favour of what seemed the cheap growth of a service economy, prepared to ask those questions now? That economy lies severely weakened—if not in need of an entire reimagining.

Will we now take seriously the importance of R&D investment—not merely as something that helps us compete with South Korea, China and Germany, but as an essential part of an economy able to respond to future crises? I realise the potential here for ‘coronavirus confirmation syndrome’, so rather than envisaging a brave new world, a richer seam to mine is the future of R&D funding itself. 

Spending review

The government has committed to increasing the annual public R&D budget from around £11 billion to £22bn by 2025. The detail of this increase was due in the comprehensive spending review. But with this delayed, along with the Research Excellence Framework and likely a host of other initiatives, inaction could leave the research community facing its own crisis.

Investment needs to come sooner rather than later. The Treasury must not merely open its coffers but look again at how funding is delivered.

As I argued in my last speech as science minister in January, quality-related funding is essential. I was the first science minister to reverse the historic decline in QR funding, and it should be boosted again now. We need a commitment for QR funding to rise in step with public R&D funding so that it doubles over five years. 

At the same time, the framework of grant funding needs to be transformed. The obsession with process that has resulted in a plethora of similar-sounding funding pots needs to end.

The bureaucracy is so frustrating, the waste of opportunities so pitiful. Outcomes could be better secured by creating a single funding framework across a spending review, agile in its approach to netting private R&D and able to act as a venture capitalist for new technologies. The research community must step up its fight for fresh thinking about how money should be spent and how it can get to the front line faster.

If a boost to QR is an immediate priority, so too is maintaining our international partnerships. The European Union’s R&D funding programme Horizon 2020 is showing its leadership in releasing funds to tackle Covid-19. No doubt its successor Horizon Europe will be delayed, but however the transition between the two frameworks is managed, the UK needs to be around the table as a partner with an association agreement, or at least a commitment to making one.

To withdraw from the most successful international science partnership just when the importance of international research is clearer than ever would seem unfathomable to the public.

Shifting ambitions

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t go further still. A year ago, I commissioned Adrian Smith, former director of the Alan Turing Institute, and Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at University College London, to explore alternatives to Horizon Europe in case of a no-deal Brexit. Much has changed since then: we have a prime minister and government committed to R&D, so our ambitions must shift.

We need both association to Horizon Europe and the new international funds proposed in Smith and Reid’s review, not least the Agility Fund that would allow government to respond to opportunities or crises—a capacity that, as we are discovering, is sorely missing.

For now, the world of science, research and innovation is everyone’s world. But the spotlight will recede. We must seize the opportunity to ensure science and research do not return to the shadows, and that their priorities remain national priorities. 

Chris Skidmore (pictured) MP was twice minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation between 2018 and 2020

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight