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Science bodies urge chancellor not to roll back on R&D investment target

More than 30 leading science and technology bodies have urged the UK chancellor not to renege on plans to increase research and development spending to £22bn by the end of the parliament, as the government refused to recommit to the target date.

Britain’s research community has grown increasingly concerned that the big increase in public R&D spending promised by the chancellor may fall victim to a tight public spending round ahead of this month’s Budget, and undermine Boris Johnson’s pledge to turn the UK into “science superpower”.

In a letter to Sunak sent on Tuesday, 33 organisations including the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Francis Crick Institute, Cancer Research UK, the Royal Society and Universities UK, said it was “crucial that government invests strategically now”.

It said that immediate action for “genuine new investment” was necessary to stand any chance of the government reaching its target of £22bn public funding for R&D by 2024-25. The figure this year is £14.9bn.

Sunak announced the target in his 2020 Budget and it was also part of a government R&D road map published this year. But recently Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary, stopped referring to the 2024-25 target date.

Asked whether the £22bn target would still be achieved by that date, the business department said: “We remain committed to increasing public expenditure on R&D to £22bn, helping deliver on our target to increase total UK R&D investment to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027.”

Greg Clark, Conservative chair of the Commons science committee, said the refusal to recommit to the 2024-25 date was “very strange”. “This is a fundamental pillar of the government’s programme,” he said. “It’s essential for our future prosperity and levelling up.”

Research leaders fear that the government could attempt to quietly shelve the £22bn commitment, either by extending the 2024-25 timeline by a number of years or including existing spending previously included in EU membership budgets or other departments, in the R&D budget.

The letter’s signatories said the chancellor must use this month’s Spending Review to set out a plan for “genuine new investment” by 2024 rather than reclassifying existing funding streams.

“The mood music is gloomier than it has been for some time,” said one person closely involved in the R&D spending negotiations. “But people will see through the use of accounting tricks to cover up cuts.”

Several people with knowledge of discussions said they understood that decisions were yet to be finalised, but that indications were of a retreat from the £22bn timeline in favour of a focus on the longer-term target of 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027.

However, policy experts said this would amount to a U-turn by Johnson’s government, in part because a big boost in Treasury spending is needed to attract the private investment necessary to reach the broader target.

“A U-turn on R&D investment — and this is what this would be — would end up costing more than it would save,” one person said. “It’s a false economy”.

Analysis by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a lobby group which signed the letter, found that delaying the £22bn target by three years would result in a loss of more than £11bn of leveraged private investment by 2027-28, and missing the 2.4 per cent target.

Sarah Main, executive director of Case, said investment cash for R&D would be irreversibly diverted to international competitors if funding did not come soon.

“There is going to be a really strong pull across the world for research investment, talent and opportunities,” she said. “If the government delays, it’s not something they can just do later because the opportunities will be gone.”

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group which represents top UK universities, another signatory, said it was vital that the government provided a “clear plan” on how it would realise its £22bn pledge so that businesses, as well as universities, had certainty to invest.

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