UK science, technology & innovation policy after Brexit: priorities, ambitions & uncertainties

  • 29 April 2021
  • General
  • Gavin Costigan and James Wilsdon

It’s hard enough trying to keep track of the UK’s R&D funding system for those who work in it. But if you are trying to understand it from the outside, it can seem impenetrable. At the end of 2020, the Foundation for Science and Technology was approached by the Japanese Embassy in London to write a summary of the UK system as it is today – and where it might be heading in a post-Brexit world. It would be a convenient snapshot of current UK policy.

What we had not banked on was how much the landscape would be changing whilst we were writing the report itself. Parts of our snapshot were out of date almost as soon as we had put finger to keyboard, with a huge flurry of activity in the last few weeks. The UK was associating to Horizon Europe, but where was the money coming from? How was the decision on cutting overseas development budgets affecting R&D? Was the Industrial Strategy being replaced? What was happening with ARIA? Answers – and more questions – were coming thick and fast.

Some aspects of the UK system are well established – grant funding from Research Councils (now part of UKRI), and QR funding from the REF (with the 2021 exercise now in its final evaluation stage). But previous years of austerity, the Brexit referendum, and Covid-19, have all had a significant effect on what the UK can do, and its priorities for the next decade.

We have, of course, been promised significant rises in public R&D budgets in the UK, with the Theresa May Government announcing a rise of gross domestic expenditure on R&D (the delightfully-sounding “GERD”) to 2.4% by 2027, and the current administration proposing to increase government spending on R&D to £22B by 2025. What’s not to celebrate in that? Well, maybe best keep the bunting in its box for a few months yet. Promises are easier made than delivered, and the coronavirus has thrown many plans out of the window, including the postponement of the 3 year Spending Review. Not until that is published, and maybe not even then, will we get a feel for how much of the research investment goodwill has survived Covid-19.

So what do we know? Last summer’s draft R&D Roadmap gives us some clues. As well as overall commitments on money, it details policy drives on levelling up R&D across the UK and on developing an R&D people and culture strategy. It also describes the move to a new funding agency for high risk research – now called ARIA – and sets out some priorities for international research collaboration, in particular association with Horizon Europe.

For a period in February and March, the relief of the decision, as part of the agreement with the EU, to associate with Horizon Europe, was tempered with a lack of clarity on where the money was going to come from to pay for it. The 1 April announcement on funding year 1 of our Horizon Europe fees came as a relief, but the longer term picture remains unclear. What is clear, though, is the damage being cause by the cuts to the Overseas Development Aid (ODA) budget, leading UKRI having to curtail already-issued grants.

There are uncertainties in domestic policy too. The Industrial Strategy will be replaced by an Innovation Strategy in the next couple of months. What does this mean for the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, Innovate UK, Catapult Network, Knowledge Transfer Network and the rest? It’s not clear yet, and we await that publication.

But other Government documents have emerged in which R&D plays a key role. The Plan for Growth, published in March, speaks of infrastructure, skills and innovation, of levelling up across the UK, reaching Net Zero emissions, and of developing Global Britain. Meanwhile the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, also published in March (as we said, it’s been a busy few weeks) provides an interesting insight into how the government currently sees UK R&D internationally. There’s a commitment for the UK to become “an S&T superpower by 2030”, and whilst there is talk of collaboration, there’s a much great emphasis on beating the competition. Yet in R&D, the only way to compete is to collaborate – a point that may need making repeatedly over coming months.

We should, of course, be clear that the UK is a leading R&D nation, and will continue to be so. But there’s a lot of change in the air, and the next few months will set the scene for several years to come.

Read the full report providing a guide to science, technology and innovation funding and policy in the UK, as at April 2021 here.

Gavin Costigan is the Chief Executive of the Foundation for Science and Technology. Find out more about Gavin and his work here

James Wilsdon is the Director of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI) and Digital Science Professor of Research Policy at the University of Sheffield. Find out more about James and his work here