Government warned against making ‘catastrophic’ funding cuts to British science

Scientists and experts accuse Downing Street of scaling back investment, despite promise to turn UK into ‘a scientific superpower’

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
Tuesday 30 March 2021 21:18 BST
Billions of cuts could be made to domestic science budgets in the coming years
Billions of cuts could be made to domestic science budgets in the coming years (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The government has been warned against making a series of potentially “catastrophic” funding cuts to scientific research, amid concern the sector could be deprived of billions of pounds in the coming years.

Both the prime minister and chancellor have outlined their intention to turn the UK into “a scientific superpower”, but such ambition is threatened by large financial gaps across the industry, leading experts and scientists have said.

Although the government has committed to increasing research and development spending to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, it is feared this will not repair the damage wrought by a potential shortfall in government research spending, as well as reductions in funding for two other areas of the British science sector.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a national agency which directs the government’s science funding, could be forced to pick up the £2bn bill needed to cover Britain’s participation in Horizon Europe – the EU’s flagship research programme – as outlined under the Brexit deal.

The previous financial commitment to Horizon 2020, which preceded Horizon Europe, came from the UK’s overall contribution to the EU, and not from the nation’s science budget. 

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However, the government has yet to decide how the £2bn association fee will be covered, and industry leaders are fearful domestic research is now at risk, despite Boris Johnson’s promises that “Brexit would not take a penny of any existing [science] budget”.

If UKRI has to cover the cost from the start of the next financial year, it is likely to have to make immediate cuts to British research programmes it has already agreed to fund, scientists have said. A £2bn contribution is equivalent to more than one-fifth of UKRI’s £9.1bn budget.

Professor David Price, vice-provost of University College London, said uncertainty surrounding the financial commitments to Horizon Europe was “destabilising UK research and innovation just at the time when the government is promoting its ‘scientific superpower’ agenda”.

If cuts to domestic science budgets are needed to cover the costs, this “risks choking off the pipeline of research that has enabled UK universities to respond so effectively to the pandemic”, Prof Price said.

Sir Jim McDonald, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “It would be entirely counter-productive if the research and innovation budget has to be stretched to breaking point because the 2020 spending review did not make sufficient allowances to cover the initial cost of association to Horizon Europe.”

Experts have also warned of the funding crisis that has hit medical research charities throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Due to the closure of charity shops, the cancellation of events, and a huge drop in public donations, these institutions are short of £310m needed to fund vital R&D.

“With such a significant shortfall in income, we can’t afford to keep spending at the same levels and this is forcing some incredibly difficult decisions,” said Iain Foulkes, executive director of research and innovation at Cancer Research UK. “While we are doing everything we can to minimise the impact, cuts to our life-saving research are sadly unavoidable.”

Lastly, UKRI has warned of a £120m hole in its budget after the government cut funding for international development aid in response to financial pressures caused by Covid-19.

Known as official development assistance (ODA), this money has helped the UKRI to establish and run overseas research into deadly infectious diseases such as malaria, HIV and tuberculosis, along with other projects into improving health care systems and sustainability in lower-income nations.

However, these initiatives, including two notable malaria programmes, are now likely to be abandoned after the government scaled back its ODA – a decision that has been widely condemned by the scientific community.

UKRI has said it can only fund projects until the end of July and that almost 900 projects are affected.

The Department for Health and Social Care’s ODA budget, which supports the National Institute for Health Research’s global health research programme, has also dropped by 28 per cent, from £219m to £157m.

Professor Arne Akbar, president of the British Society for Immunology, said these cuts threaten to “undermine the UK’s ambition to be a science superpower and leave a gaping hole in our record of research excellence”.

Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, described the funding reductions as “catastrophic, even existential”.

“We are facing a huge threat to the future of scientific research in the UK,” he said. “Research requires consistent support and investment that transcends political cycles. You can’t turn the tap off and on and expect to achieve growth in innovation and the economy. Outstanding scientists will simply leave the UK and go elsewhere.”

An open letter deploring the ODA shortfall, signed by roughly 5,000 academics from UK universities and other organisations, has meanwhile been sent to chancellor Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary Dominic Raab.

A government spokesperson said: “The UK remains a world-leading aid donor. This year alone, we will spend more than £10bn to address poverty, tackle climate change, fight Covid and improve global health.

“We are working with our delivery partners, including UK Research and Innovation, to implement a new research and development settlement for 2021-22 as part of our wider commitment to maintain the UK’s world-class reputation for science, research and innovation.”

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