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Explaining UK research means shooting at a moving target


A new guide captures a system in flux, say Gavin Costigan and James Wilsdon

For scientists and policymakers overseas—whether collaborators or competitors with the UK, or a combination of the two—the workings of the British research system can seem baffling. 

What exactly is dual support? Why did we merge our research councils into one agency in 2018, and why are we now setting up a funding agency outside of that? And what’s our role in Horizon Europe after Brexit? 

Earlier this year, the Foundation for Science and Technology, a charity focused on R&D policy, was asked by the Japanese Embassy in London to produce a simple guide to the UK system: to describe how it fits together, and where it’s going next. It’s now freely available on the foundation’s website.

Drafting such a guide seemed straightforward. Yet a flurry of government initiatives over recent weeks has highlighted the pace of UK research policy—including funding for participation in Horizon Europe; a parliamentary bill to create the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria); a revamped approach to industrial strategy and substantial cuts to research funded via the aid budget. 

Taking a longer view, three factors have dominated the past decade of UK public policy: austerity, following the 2008 financial crash, Brexit and Covid-19. 


The government has promised significant rises in public R&D budgets, pledging to raise domestic expenditure on R&D to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027 and boost government R&D spending to £22 billion (€25bn) a year by 2025. But such promises are easier made than kept; we won’t really know how much investment is coming until this autumn’s three-year spending review.

Until then, we rely on what we do know. The government’s draft R&D Roadmap, published in summer 2020, sets out commitments on investments, but also on reducing regional inequalities in R&D, on research culture, on Aria, and on international collaboration post Brexit. 

The last of these has had a bumpy few weeks. It’s still unclear whether funding announced on 1 April to help cover the first year of Horizon Europe participation is a short-term fix, or part of a longer plan. 

Our guide also looks at the rise and (potential) fall of challenge funding. The Strategic Priorities Fund looks safe for now, but the Global Challenges Research Fund is in freefall, and the future of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is unclear, pending a new Innovation Strategy due in June. 

Tough questions

The new kid on the block is Aria—for which legislation is passing through parliament. Tough questions are being asked: about the agency’s rationale, how it relates to UK Research and Innovation, the overarching public funder created in 2018, and ultimately whether it will deliver the ‘next Google’, or pour £200 million per year down the drain. 

As we gradually emerge from the pandemic, the government is shifting its attention towards rebuilding the economy. The Plan for Growth, published by the Treasury in March, focuses on infrastructure, skills and innovation, boosting lagging regions, net zero emissions, and developing “Global Britain”. All contain huge roles for R&D. 

So, where does all this leave countries looking to collaborate with the UK? Our guide focuses on inputs more than outputs, but it’s worth remembering the UK’s successes, as reflected by highly cited research and globally leading universities. 

The UK has R&D strengths that many countries would love to share. We are and—for the foreseeable future—will remain a leading R&D nation.

And yet risks and uncertainties lie ahead. Outside the EU, the UK will have to work harder to benefit from Horizon Europe. It remains to be seen whether the new Office for Talent can create a genuinely welcoming visa system. And the wave of aid-linked grant cancellations has wrecked projects and partnerships that have taken years to build.

The recent Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, provides further insight into how the government sees R&D. It is packed with talk of the UK as “an S&T superpower”, and an emphasis on beating the competition. Collaboration is more of an afterthought. 

However, in many areas—particularly basic research—collaboration is the most effective way to compete. These and other arguments for broad, stable and long-term investment in our R&D system will need to be made and remade in the months ahead. 

The authors’ report on UK science policy after Brexit is available here

Gavin Costigan is chief executive of the Foundation for Science and Technology, James Wilsdon is the Digital Science professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield and director of the Research on Research Institute, both in the UK

This article also appeared in Research Europe