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Research spending target pushed back by two years

The government has put back its target of spending £22bn a year on research and development by two years to 2026-27. Public investment in R&D will instead rise from £15bn this year to £20bn in 2024-25 — an increase of about a quarter in real terms.

Scientific leaders expressed regret about the failure of their campaign to hold the chancellor to the original date but most reacted positively to the Budget announcement on Wednesday. Some had feared worse.

“Many in our community will be disappointed that the chancellor has moved the goalposts on the targets for investment in R&D,” said Helen Pain, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

“But we recognise we are in a challenging fiscal climate and that the new commitments do still show a significant increase in spending, with a three-year settlement for R&D.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak insisted: “We are making this country a science and technology superpower.” He said government support for science and technology in Britain would grow to 1.1 per cent of gross domestic product by 2024, compared with an OECD average of 0.7 per cent, taking into account R&D tax credits as well as direct public spending.

George Freeman, science minister, said the UK was still on track to raise total R&D investment by public and private sectors from 1.8 per cent of GDP in 2019 to 2.4 per cent by 2027. The OECD average is 2.5 per cent.

That increase would mean “attracting more R&D investment from around the world, growing and financing more world-class companies in the UK, and harnessing regulation, procurement and skills to develop clusters of innovation around all parts of the country,” Freeman said.

Scientists were relieved to see a sustained growth path for all the main strands of government R&D funding over the next three years, including the “core research” budget for supporting academic science through UK Research and Investment, which is set to rise from £4.8bn in 2021-22 to £5.9bn in 2024-25. Innovate UK, which supports business innovation, will have an increase from £700m to £1.1bn over the same period.

The government is set to fund full UK association with the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme, at a total cost of £6.9bn over four years. But this has been held up by political friction between the UK and EU, particularly about the Northern Ireland protocol, and eventual agreement is not a foregone conclusion. If Britain does not join Horizon Europe, the Budget document says the funding will go to other research programmes to support international partnerships.

The spending review confirms £800m funding by 2025-26 for the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency which will support high-risk high-reward projects, including £50m this year to get it started. Aria was the idea of Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former chief adviser, and does not yet have a chief executive or chair.

The aerospace industry welcomed the government’s announcement that it would commit to funding the highly regarded Aerospace Technology Institute until 2031. The ATI, jointly funded by public and private sectors, channels funds for UK research into next-generation aerospace.

A decision earlier this year to suspend funding was widely criticised, coming just as the industry faces pressure to cut its carbon emissions. However, there are still concerns over whether the scale of funding could suffer when it is resumed.

Additional reporting by Peggy Hollinger

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