Guest Editorial


Backing UK science to deliver

Adrian Smith

Sir Adrian Smith PRS is President of the Royal Society and a mathematician with particular expertise in the field of Bayesian statistics. This widely applicable branch of mathematics represents uncertainties in the form of probabilities, which are then modified through the mechanism of Bayes theorem as new information becomes available. He has been awarded the Royal Statistical Society’s Guy Medals in Bronze, Silver and Gold and served from 1995 to 1997 as its President. In the 2011 New Year Honours list, he was awarded the title of Knight Bachelor.

When I became President of the Royal Society in November last year, the role of science in society had been thrust into sharp focus.  The pandemic has – and continues to have – terrible consequences in the UK and across the globe but it would have been worse were it not for the scientists who have done so much to understand COVID-19, determine how to tackle it and ultimately how to produce effective vaccines.

The contribution of the science community has been immense.  As well as the work to understand the virus and produce those treatments and vaccines, support for evidence-based policy making has been crucial.  We have also had so many scientists helping public understanding, whether through public events or contributions to media coverage.  Scientific publishers have done everything they can to ensure knowledge is shared as quickly and openly as possible. 

All this is a testament to the strength of the UK science base and to international collaboration. None of it happened by accident.  The successes are the result of decades of investment in people, ideas and facilities.  That is why we cannot afford to ease up in making the case for increased investment in science.

The past year has dealt a huge blow to public finances the world over, but it has also raised the possibility of, as our Government has put it, ‘building back better’.  Despite some recent skirmishes, which I will come back to, the Government has remained committed to increasing funding for research, declaring the intention to ensure the UK is a global scientific superpower.  That has seen a reaffirmation of the commitment to increase investment in research to £22 billion a year by 2025, contributing to reaching a target of investing 2.4% of GDP by 2027. 

Raising the average

Since that 2.4% target was set, based on the average OECD figure, others have stepped up their spending and the OECD average has gone up to 2.5%.  So our ‘race to the average’ is already falling behind.  Previous Government commitments saw 2.4% of GDP as a stepping-stone to a longer-term goal of 3% – it is time to reassert that goal.  It is also time for a clear plan on how the UK will first reach 2.4%.  

That plan must set out not only how the £22 billion will be reached but also how the private sector investment, which accounts for roughly two thirds of the 2.4%, will be attracted to participate.  Business needs certainty in order to invest.  Multi-year funding commitments are needed to signal clearly to investors how increased public investment in R&D will be delivered, showcasing opportunities, providing confidence and informing long-term planning.

As we strive to reach the average, China, for example, plans to increase its annual R&D spending by more than 7% in the next five years.  The French government has announced that the budget of its National Research Agency will triple by 2023, and Spain has unveiled a budget that will see research spending increase by more than 80% this year.  Some €20 billion has been set aside to turbocharge education, research and infrastructure over the next five years in the Netherlands, and Sweden has announced a 10% increase in its research and innovation budget by 2024.  Israel is already investing 4.9% of GDP.  US investment in R&D is now at 3% of its GDP and the Biden administration has announced massive increases in research funding.

The pandemic would have been worse were it not for the scientists who have done so much to produce vaccines against COVID-19.

International collaboration

Looking at international competition is important if we want to lead the world, but international collaboration is just as important.  The Christmas Eve announcement that the UK would associate to Horizon Europe as part of the Brexit deal was an early Christmas present for UK science.  The Royal Society, along with many other voices, had worked tirelessly to make the case for association since the referendum.  However, securing that victory was only a first step.  Recent months have seen a great deal of uncertainty about how the UK would meet the cost of association.  

It is estimated that this will be around £2 billion, on average, per year but because of the way payments are spread it looks like the cost this year will be around £1 billion.  Concerns were raised that while the cost of previous EU research funding programmes came from central budgets, the cost of association could fall to the research budget, effectively cutting UKRI’s funding. 

Just before Easter we had a rather opaque announcement from Government.  There was a very welcome additional £250 million and two pots of £400 million and £350 million from sources that are not entirely clear.  For now, the potential problem seems to have been averted but again there is a need for clearer, more long-term planning.

Once again, we need researchers in every university and research institute to focus on the opportunities available.

Attracting talent

Another challenge where action has been taken is in ensuring that the UK is still able to attract the best overseas researchers to work alongside our homegrown talent.  UK science has always thrived on being open to people and ideas and we have a job in front of us to reassure scientists all over the world that we are still open for business.  The Global Talent Visa is a good first step in delivering a visa system that is welcoming, faster and more flexible, one which takes into account the long-term aspirations of scientists and their families.  It will be crucial to continue to monitor our ability to attract top talent.

As well as remaining open to the best overseas researchers, we also have to support our own homegrown talent.  The Government has signalled its ambition for the UK to become, ‘the very best place in the world to be a researcher, inventor or innovator’ – now we need to invest in producing the next generation of those researchers, inventors and innovators.

Then there is the challenge of making sure that UK researchers take full advantage of the Horizon Europe funding streams.  Pre-Brexit, the UK did incredibly well at securing funding but for a number of reasons, that had slipped quite a bit in recent years.  Once again, we need researchers in every university and research institute to focus on the opportunities available.  With any public investment there will always be a requirement for a ‘value for money’ assessment – we need to make sure Horizon Europe passes that with flying colours.

While our relations with our European partners on science are promising in terms of international collaboration, cuts to the Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget have done serious harm to the UK’s reputation as a reliable international partner.  Around £400 million has been taken out of the research budget with schemes such as the Royal Society’s Future Leaders – African Independent Researchers (FLAIR) programme being devastated.  While we must recognise the difficult state of public finances right now, you cannot turn the tap on and off on long-term scientific collaboration and think it will not hurt both research and the UK’s international reputation.  Such actions do not sit well alongside the idea of the UK as a global scientific superpower.

Building back better

One of the forthcoming opportunities for the UK to burnish its global credentials also offers the opportunity to ‘build back better’.  The pandemic is not the only global crisis that we face – It is also not the only one where science can help provide the solutions.  The threats of climate change and loss of biodiversity loom large.  The UK has set ambitious targets for reaching net-zero and as evidenced in the recent launch of a series of technology briefings by the Royal Society, we also have some of the ideas that can help us deliver on those ambitions and in turn help other nations to decarbonise their economies.  We cannot do this alone but the UK must set out a well-funded and detailed roadmap for how we plan to deliver on our ambitions, as we host the climate summit in Glasgow.

That roadmap can also help deliver on the Government’s levelling-up agenda.  New technologies, whether related to decarbonisation or other areas, can flourish in the universities, research institutes and innovative businesses that can be found all over the UK.  Again, what is needed is greater investment based on multi-year funding commitments to clearly signal how that increased public investment in R&D will be delivered.

I am optimistic for the future.  This Government has long been an advocate for investment in research and innovation.  The past year can only have reinforced the belief that our science base can deliver.  The challenge will be to make sure we do not get overtaken by all the other countries which recognise that future economic growth and the wellbeing of their populations will be dependent on research and innovation.  

We are in a great position, we must not take that for granted, but instead must back our science base to deliver even more.