What’s next for the UK research funding landscape?

In today’s blog, Sophie Lowry, Strategic Research Executive, rounds up some of the latest key developments in UK research funding, and explores what may be next for the UK research funding landscape.

It’s hard to believe that it was just three months ago that the UK government announced its 2020 budget in which it announced an increase in public research spending to £22 billion a year by 2024. There was also a promise to increase overall research and development spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 – to put this in perspective, in 2018, total R&D expenditure represented 1.71% of GDP.

This news was obviously warmly welcomed by the UK research base. In February of this year, we also saw the introduction of the Global Talent Visa, a fast-track visa for researchers from all over the world, which is managed by UKRI, not the Home Office.  There has also been a continued emphasis on the so-called ‘place agenda’, as can be demonstrated through policy initiatives like the ‘Strength in Places Fund’ and the over-arching Industrial Strategy. Not to mention the growing anticipation of a UK version of a high-risk, high-reward funding agency, modelled on the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).

There was also a particularly telling speech by the then Science Minister, Chris Skidmore, given at the opening of the Durham University Teaching and Learning Centre back in January.  He affirmed the current administration’s key priority to invest in science and technology to meet the global challenges of today. His speech highlighted the importance of investing across all of the UK and announced the publication of data from UKRI on how it invests across the regions. He went on to add that this government would continue to invest in research excellence and maintaining existing capabilities but also emphasised the value of cross-university partnerships within the UK university sector and beyond. Interestingly an entire section of his speech focused on the importance of developing a ‘research people strategy’ for the next decade, making reference both to the Wellcome Trust report on research culture and to the importance of early career researcher support.

Of course all this happened before the current global health pandemic and a rapidly changing national and global landscape in which governmental budgets are likely to be extremely tight. We have also seen a change in personnel in the UK Science Minister role (and a portfolio split) and are only a few weeks away from a new CEO, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, in charge at UKRI. So what next for the UK research funding landscape?

Dr Beth Thompson writes for WonkHE that, “Science is the exit strategy from this pandemic, so it’s not surprising that science has a higher public profile than perhaps ever before”. Dr Thompson further suggests that over the coming weeks and months, policymakers will need to make critical decisions in the following areas: the UK’s role in international research collaboration (e.g. negotiating UK participation in the Horizon Europe programme and continued use of ODA funds) and the financial crisis facing the UK university sector and how the shortfall in research funding, in particular, can be mitigated.

Just days ago BEIS published its funding allocations for research for 2020/21. At the time of writing, it looks as though there has been an additional 20% (£1bn) allocated to UKRI’s budget but the higher education policy experts are awaiting further details from UK Government and UKRI on what this actually looks like (e.g. no mention of the British ARPA). There is, however, cautious optimism around this, albeit one-year, budget that this UK government is still intending to meet its commitment to doubling research investment in the UK by 2024.

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Sophie Lowry

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