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A vision for UK research and innovation


The nation’s science must be well funded, outward-looking and open to all, says Adrian Smith

British science has had a year like no other. Vaccines, tests and treatments developed and trialled in the UK are saving lives and giving hope of an end to the Covid-19 pandemic. These are the fruits of a historic effort by the UK’s research and innovation sector, built on decades of national and international investment in researchers, skilled technical staff and facilities.

It is right to celebrate this excellence and success, but we must not lose sight of the need to double-down on long-term funding of the entire sector. Every investment in research and innovation is an investment in the UK’s international standing and future economic growth.  

The £14.6 billion committed in last November’s spending review for 2021-22, along with a multi-year deal for basic research, is a strong start. Spending at these levels will put UK science on a more equal financial footing with countries such as Germany and the United States, which invest a much greater proportion of their GDP on research. Making strides towards the government’s long-term target of spending 3 per cent of GDP on R&D will create opportunities across the country.  

Collaboration is another crucial pillar of the UK’s scientific success. The Brexit trade agreement provides for continued access to EU R&D programmes, including Horizon Europe, and to the networks of cooperation that have helped British institutions thrive. 

After years of uncertainty, it is vital that the association agreement is ratified quickly so the research community can apply for funding, forge new relationships and restore confidence in the UK as a key partner in European research. Clarity on immigration arrangements and additional funding to cover the cost of association will help to maximise the benefits of participation.

Regional inequality

There are also elements of Brexit beyond the deal on Horizon Europe that need attention. R&D in the UK’s less advantaged regions has benefited significantly from research and innovation supported by EU structural funds. Initiatives that build on regional strengths and capabilities, perhaps making use of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, will be key to the levelling-up effort to reduce regional inequalities. 

The UK should be expanding its horizons globally and building relationships with scientific collaborators across the world. We can build on the foundations laid by the global talent visa, to seek reciprocal arrangements on mobility and promote the UK as a destination for principal investigators, innovators and early career researchers alike. 

Global collaboration

This global effort should include an ambition to strike deals with emerging science nations, underpinned by streamlined funding mechanisms and regulation. These should enhance the UK’s cutting-edge basic research and encourage partnerships on areas of shared strength and global challenges, such as biodiversity loss, climate change and future pandemics.

The devastating cuts to R&D funding in the aid budget jeopardise these goals. It is a serious concern that the UK—in a year when it holds the presidency of the G7 and the COP26 climate summit—is signalling a retreat from global sustainable development research.

The events of 2020 highlighted issues in our research system that hold back talent and hamstring the economic prospects of individuals and society. Many ethnic minority researchers face barriers throughout their education and academic careers. 

These issues connect with the socioeconomic deprivation that prevents too many working class young people from pursuing the higher education or training that leads to a career in science and technology. Coordinated efforts across science institutions, the further and higher education system and society at large will be needed to pull down these barriers. 

Adapting to the disruption of the pandemic is a generation-defining challenge for the education system. As we look at programmes to make up for lost schooling we should take stock of secondary and further education more broadly—including vocational qualifications. 

Ensuring all young people have opportunities to study and develop their scientific skills, alongside the arts and social sciences, is a vital part of producing the next generation of innovative and resilient citizens. 

The UK is facing major changes to work, brought on by automation and artificial intelligence, and accelerated by the pandemic. Action to strengthen our data science base, and make the recovery from Covid-19 a green one, could create skilled jobs and entire new industries across the country. Setting a clear and ambitious vision today will put the UK in a position to grasp these opportunities.

Adrian Smith is the president of the Royal Society

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight