In December 2020, the Japanese Embassy in London approached the Foundation to ask if a report could be produced on science, technology and innovation policy and funding after Brexit. As a result, Gavin Costigan (Chief Executive of the Foundation for Science and Technology) and James Wilsdon (Digital Science Professor of Research Policy at the University of Sheffield and Director of the Research on Research Institute) produced a report that was published on 29 April 2021.

UK science, technology and innovation policy after Brexit


In December 2020, the Japanese Embassy in London approached the Foundation to ask if a report could be produced on science, technology and innovation policy and funding after Brexit. As a result, Gavin Costigan (Chief Executive of the Foundation for Science and Technology) and James Wilsdon (Digital Science Professor of Research Policy at the University of Sheffield and Director of the Research on Research Institute) produced a report that was published on 29 April 2021.

In the past decade, three issues have had a profound effect on large areas of UK public policy, science, technology and innovation (STI) policy:

Austerity:  Government R&D investment was partially protected during austerity years of 2010-2015, with a flat cash settlement.  From 2016, levels of funding began to rise, accompanied by a raft of changes to the governance of Science, Technology & Innovation (STI) policy.

Brexit:  The UK R&D community has been extremely successful in securing funding from EU research programmes, but Brexit has prompted a concern about the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe.

COVID-19:  The research community has been heavily involved in supporting the Government during the pandemic, with significant effort and funding targeted at this challenge.

Investment and the R&D Roadmap

In 2017, the Government endorsed a public R&D expenditure target of 2.4% of GDP by 2027.  The 2018 level was 1.7% (£12.6 billion).  The March 2020 budget committed to raising public R&D to £22 billion a year by 2025.

Public investment accounts for a little over 30% of the total spent on R&D.  Business R&D is around 68%.  Additional public investment should generate business multiplier effects.  However, given Brexit and Covid-19, there could be a significant decrease in business R&D spending over the short term.

In July 2020, the Government published the R&D Roadmap. Some of the key policies in that document were: 

  • accelerating the translation of R&D investments into tangible economic and social outcomes; 
  • levelling up R&D across the UK;
  • a commitment to new ‘moonshot’ goals (which has led to the development of ARIA – see below and also pp6-12 of this issue);
  • tackling perceived problems in research cultures;
  • a post-Brexit reset of the UK’s approach to international collaboration and mobility.

The Government’s three-year Spending Review was replaced with a one-year review in November 2020, in which public R&D budgets were increased, to reach £14.6 billion in 2021-22.  However, the UK’s Overseas Development Aid was cut from 0.7% to 0.5%, leading to cuts in aid-linked R&D funding (see below). 

There was concern about how the UK’s association to Horizon Europe would be funded, until an announcement on 1 April, which promised £250 million of extra investment and £700 million of unallocated funds from the Department of Energy, Business and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to cover the first year of that association. 

When it comes to how funding is allocated to universities, what is described as the ‘dual support system’ is now in reality a system of  multiple, interdependent funding streams, including: Quality-related Research (QR) funding, allocated on the basis of the Research Excellence Framework (REF);  grant funding awarded through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and others; challenge-directed funding; internal cross-subsidies for research within universities drawn from domestic and international student tuition fees; other commercial activities; Horizon Europe; business and industrial funding; and charitable funding.

Structural reforms to the research funding system

The 2015 review led by Sir Paul Nurse proposed the creation of UKRI, which would draw together the seven existing Research Councils, Innovate UK and the research elements of the former Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).  UKRI was established as part of the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act and was formally launched in 2018.  Its strategic prospectus from May 2018 sets out UKRI’s vision, though the Government’s July 2020 R&D Roadmap now provides the primary strategic context in which UKRI is operating.

Three years after its establishment, it has achieved some of the aspirations of its architects, including securing additional investment in R&D, the merger of nine organisations, and the introduction of the Future Leaders Fellows scheme.  Yet its full potential has yet to be realised, with challenges including perceived bureaucracy and dealing with the ODA cuts.

Much of the increase in UKRI budgets has been in challenge-led funding (rather than responsive grant schemes).  Three in particular have been significant in recent years:

  • Industrial Strategy Challenges Fund (ISCF) – which has funded 24 sectoral or technological challenges since 2017. 
  • Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) – which funds R&D partnerships with universities, researchers, governmental and non-governmental partners in ODA-eligible countries. 
  • Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF) – which is an £830 million investment in interdisciplinary research across 34 themes. 

The recently-announced Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) will fund high-risk R&D.  Based on the US Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Bill to establish it is currently going through Parliament.  There have been concerns expressed on how it will interact with other parts of the R&D system such as UKRI.  The announced budget is £800 million.

There are also several funds supporting university-business interaction.  Innovate UK, part of UKRI, is the main source of funding in this area, with funding streams such as smart grants, Catalyst programmes, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI).  In addition, there are nine Catapult centres, focussing on priority innovation areas, and the Knowledge Transfer Network.  Grants to universities include the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), the Connecting Capabilty Fund, and Impact Acceleration Accounts.

In October 2020, the Government announced a review of the Research Excellence Framework, the system of identifying research excellence and ­following which QR funding is then allocated. 

Global Research Collaboration after Brexit

In March 2021, the Government published the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.  This policy document says the Government will “incorporate S&T as an integral element of our national security and international policy” and that the UK will become “an S&T superpower by 2030”.  S&T objectives include:

  • growing the UK’s S&T power;
  • being a responsible and democratic cyber power;
  • influencing the design and use of critical technologies;
  • improving research to commercialisation;
  • protecting intellectual property;
  • becoming the top destination for international talent;
  • improving our ability to identify, build and use the UK’s strategic S&T capabilities;
  • building a strong and varied network of international S&T partnerships.

This strategy contrasts with the 2019 International Research and Innovation Strategy which had emphasised collaboration, including via ODA-funded partnerships with the developing world.  As noted above, the decision to reduce ODA from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP has led to UKRI announcing a 70% cut in its ODA-linked budgets, including £120 million of cuts in the 2021-22 financial year to programmes such as the Global Challenge Research Fund and the Newton Fund.  It is not clear whether this is a long-term issue or not, but it has affected the ability for the UK to form international partnerships.  Some funding might be restored in the upcoming Spending Review.

In terms of EU funding, the UK agreed to associate membership of the EU Horizon Europe programme as part of the UK/EU Trade Agreement in December 2020.  However, between 2015 and 2019, due to Brexit uncertainty, there was a 40% drop in UK applications to the predecessor programme Horizon 2020, and the UK’s annual share of EU funding had fallen by around €500 million.  

The UK has ground to recover to reach its previous levels of success, once the formal association process has been completed.  Funding for year one of association was announced on 1 April 2021, but significantly more will be needed from year two and this may be addressed in the Spending Review. 

New rules have been introduced for visas to support migration and encourage the recruitment of highly-skilled workers.  These include:  a new points-based ‘skilled worker’ route;  a ‘Global Talent’ visa;  more generous post-study work visas for international graduates;, and PhD funding through UKRI for international PhD students.

Post-pandemic priorities

A number of post-Brexit, post-pandemic priorities are emerging: 

From Industrial Strategy to a Plan for Growth:  The Industrial Strategy, published in 2017, appears to in the process of being phased out, with the March 2021 Plan for Growth filling the space, and a promise of an Innovation Strategy in the summer of 2021.

Regional Inequalities and Levelling Up:  There is now an explicit commitment to give geography and place greater weight in the R&D funding system.  The UKRI’s Strength in Places fund has so far invested £186 million, and a place-based R&D strategy is expected later in 2021.

Net Zero and Low Carbon Innovation: The Government has published a Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, with R&D a key part.  Some additional R&D commitments may emerge following the COP26 climate change conference.

Areas of Research Interest:  Since 2017, Government departments have been publishing and updating Areas of Research Interest, helping funders and researchers identify specific needs.  

Research cultures and careers:  In summer 2020, UKRI published a concordat and action plan to support research careers.  An R&D People and Culture Strategy is expected shortly.  Related ­initiatives for open research, simplifying bureaucracy, and recognising teams are all in the works.  


UK science, technology & innovation policy after Brexit: priorities, ambitions & uncertainties by Gavin Costigan and James Wilsdon is available at:  

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