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After a hectic few months, UK R&D needs some continuity


New structures and personnel are welcome, but sustained government support is needed, says Hetan Shah

The plethora of announcements relating to research and development in the recent budget have reinforced the view that prime minister Rishi Sunak and chancellor Jeremy Hunt both see research, innovation and technology as central to the UK’s longer-term prosperity. The R&D landscape has also changed quickly in recent months. It seems like a good time to take stock.  

Machinery of government 

The creation of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology is welcome. It makes a difference having a cabinet minister whose sole interest is in R&D, rather than the energy crises or other agendas that tended to occupy the secretary of state in the old Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Alongside the National Science and Technology Council, research is now clearly embedded across government. Dsit must stay close to the Department for Education to join up with higher education policy, and to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure linkages with the cultural sector. 

But increased government attention also creates a danger that the government goes too far in setting research priorities and partnerships. Yesterday’s themes may quickly look out of date: five years ago, would politicians have focused research efforts on pandemics, energy security or Russia?

Whitehall is in danger of myopia and missing out on intelligence from the research community. Therefore, there must be room for bottom-up priorities from researchers, as well as strategic priorities from the government.
Good advice
Patrick Vallance, the outgoing chief scientific adviser, has not received enough credit for his part in reshaping the machinery of government. Vallance sometimes references a conversation with Gus O’Donnell, where he asked the former cabinet secretary about how economics had been embedded across government, and how the same could be done for science.

Vallance’s legacy goes well beyond managing the pandemic. He was able to see across the whole of research, for example, asking the British Academy in 2020 to think through the long-term societal consequences of Covid-19.

His leaving marks the end of an era, although his successor, Angela McLean, is a great choice: a safe pair of hands with a background in mathematical biology and, as chief scientific adviser at the Ministry of Defence, someone who will bring new perspectives. Her introduction to an MoD report published in February that used science fiction to stimulate foresight shows the breadth of her thinking.  

International partnerships
Dsit and Number 10 know that the research community wants the UK to secure association to the EU’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme. They also recognise that the government will lose credibility with the research community if this does not happen.  

While negotiations continue, though, it is not worth poring over every government utterance for a signal of intent. Indeed, UK negotiators do not want to look too eager, lest they arouse the Treasury’s suspicion that they are not getting value for money. 

A quick deal is in everyone’s interests. The UK research community does not want the Treasury to repeat this year’s clawback of money intended for Horizon Europe. Equally, the European Research Council needs UK funding to balance its budget. And the quicker we associate, the more we can influence the planning for Horizon Europe’s successor, which is already in train. 

The focus on Europe, however, has obscured the wider landscape around international partnerships. The lack of a long-term funding settlement that incentivises UK-based researchers to collaborate internationally is undermining our attractiveness as a partner. The pot for the International Science Partnerships Fund is relatively small, and the future of research funding in the development budget remains uncertain. 

Innovation and technology 

Dsit must consider what kind of innovation and technology strategies an economy comprised of 80 per cent services needs. How can the UK play to its strengths such as financial and legal services, the creative and heritage economy, design, data science and software?

The social sciences, humanities and arts are critical here. Pursuit of headline-grabbing breakthroughs should not mean neglect of diffusion and take-up of existing technologies. And meeting social challenges requires investment in social innovation by civil society and the public sector. 

Finally, the next 18 months or so are likely to see a general election. There feels like strong cross-party consensus on the importance of R&D. After a period of change and uncertainty, the sector might welcome some continuity. I regret to say it is also probably time to start preparing for the next spending review. 

Hetan Shah is chief executive of the British Academy

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight