ONS data revisions mean UK R&D spend may be at 2.4% target

Proposed revisions to ONS statistics about R&D in the UK could have consequences for the Government’s target to achieve a spend of 2.4% of GDP on R&D, which includes both Government and business investment.

In an article in early October, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) compared its way of collecting statistics on Business Enterprise R&D (BERD) with the data collected by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) on R&D credits.

The statistics collected by the two organisations have different coverage and use different methods.   While these estimates of R&D would not be expected to fully align, research suggests they should be closer than currently published, says ONS.

Analysis of the ONS BERD statistics shows that they could be changed to better represent smaller UK businesses, which have accounted for a growing amount of R&D activity in the HMRC statistics over recent years.

Following interim methodological improvements to better represent small businesses, the value of expenditure on R&D performed by UK businesses, according to the ONS BERD survey were £15.0 billion, £15.6 billion, and £16.1 billion higher in 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively than previously estimated. This information brings the ONS estimates closer to HMRC statistics.

ONS will use these interim improvements in the November 2022 BERD publication, which will include new data for 2021.

An analysis by the magazine Nature concludes that “the UK Government has unexpectedly met its research and development (R&D) spending target.”

The 2.4% target was based on the average spend in OECD countries when the policy was set in 2017. However, that average spend has now increased to 2.7%. Will the UK Government respond by raising its target further?



Reports outline climate change challenge

Two reports on climate change from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), published in the lead-up to COP27, demonstrate just how far the world has to go in combatting this challenge.

The Emissions Gap Report 2022 shows that updated national pledges since COP26 in Glasgow make a negligible difference to predicted 2030 emissions and that the world is far from the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to well below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C. Policies currently in place point to a 2.8°C temperature rise by the end of the century. Implementation of the current pledges will only reduce this to a 2.4-2.6°C temperature rise by the end of the century, for conditional and unconditional pledges respectively.

The report finds that only an urgent system-wide transformation can deliver the enormous cuts needed to limit greenhouse gas emissions by 2030: 45% compared with projections based on policies currently in place to get on track to 1.5°C and 30% for 2°C.

The Adaptation Gap Report 2022 looks at progress in planning, financing and implementing adaptation actions. At least 84% of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have established adaptation plans, strategies, laws and policies – up 5% from the previous year. The instruments are getting better at prioritising disadvantaged groups, such as Indigenous peoples.

However, financing to turn these plans and strategies into action is not following, says UNEP. International adaptation finance flows to developing countries are 5-10 times below estimated needs and the gap is widening. Estimated annual adaptation needs are US$160-340 billion by 2030 and $315-565 billion by 2050.



Cosmic origins

The UK has joined an international astronomy mission to search the skies for cosmic origins of the Universe. With new investment, six UK universities will deliver a major upgrade to the cosmic microwave background (CMB) experiment known as Simons Observatory (SO). The CMB is the trail of heat left by the Big Bang, and studying its tiny fluctuations help scientists to understand how the Universe was formed.

Tiny fluctuations in the CMB radiation detail fluctuations in how matter was distributed shortly after the Big Bang, which are the initial seeds of all structure in the Universe. Studying the CMB gives clues about both the origin of structure, and how the initial matter fluctuations have grown over time to form the structure of the Universe we know now.

The two types of telescope on SO will do different jobs.

Small aperture telescopes are focussed on searching for signatures of primordial gravitational waves. If detected, this signal would open a unique observational window on physics at very early times, and at ultra-high energies.

A large aperture telescope will address a range of unsolved questions including:

  • the nature of neutrinos and other relativistic species
  • the nature of dark matter
  • the physics giving rise to the observed accelerated expansion of the Universe

The international project is led by the US, supported by the Simons Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation, and includes 85 institutes from 13 countries.

UK fusion reactor

The government has announced that the West Burton power station site in Nottinghamshire has been selected as the home for ‘STEP’ (Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production), the UK’s prototype fusion energy plant which aims to be built by 2040.

Fusion is based on the same physical reactions that power the sun and stars, and is the process by which two light atomic nuclei combine while releasing large amounts of energy. This technology has significant potential to deliver safe, sustainable, low carbon energy for future generations, says the Government.

The STEP programme aims to create thousands of highly-skilled jobs during construction and operations, as well as attracting other high-tech industries to the region and furthering the development of science and technology capabilities nationally.

The programme will also commit immediately to the development of apprenticeship schemes in the region, building on the success of the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s (UKAEA) Oxfordshire Advanced Skills centre in Culham. Conversations with local providers and employers have already begun, with schemes to start as soon as possible.

The UK government is providing £220 million of funding for the first phase of STEP, which will see the UK Atomic Energy Authority produce a concept design by 2024.