Former Universities Minister Sets out Plan to Increase R&D Funding

The Policy Institute at King’s College London has published a report authored by former Universities Minister and Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute, David Willetts, which sets out a plan for increased R&D spending. The plan welcomes cross-party plans to raise R&D spending from 1.7% of the UK’s GDP to 2.4% and proposes a series of measures and guiding principles that would help the new Government achieve this challenge successfully whilst strengthening the UK’s research sector.

The plan identifies priority areas of additional funding, noting that the increase in spending when UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) was created was overwhelmingly dedicated to the newly-created ‘challenges', leaving nothing for core capability. It is therefore argued that there should be a ‘substantial increase’ in the core budgets of the Research Councils, covering a wide range of disciplines.

However, the report goes further and states that the current political consensus regarding the need for more funding for R&D should also be used to tackle some of the nation’s biggest and longest-running research challenges, particularly applying and commercialising research. Overall, the system should be well-balanced between the pursuit of fundamental understanding and of usefulness.

At the core of the report is the following 12-point plan designed to boost British science and technology and ultimately attain more value from it:

University research

  • Fund the full economic cost of a research project instead of the current 80%.
  • Announce that counting start-ups is no measure of a university’s performance in promoting innovation.
  • Discourage universities from going for such big stakes in companies created by their academic staff, which is currently a barrier to private investment.
  • Remove the requirement that all eligible researchers should be submitted to the Research Excellence Framework – to boost practical applied research and cut bureaucracy in academies.

Non-university research 

  • Create a pot of public funding to support catapults, technology parks and other non-university institutes.
  • Restore greater freedoms to public research establishments.

Key technologies

  • Immediately launch government investment in key technologies.
  • Create a new technology strategy based on expert horizon scanning for new technologies.

Business

  • Boost Innovate UK’s SMART awards budget by around £300 million a year.
  • Better align bodies such as Innovate UK, the British Business Bank and Business Growth Fund so that new technology companies can access funding schemes more easily.
  • Insist that 1% of public procurement budgets for large infrastructure programmes is used to promote innovation.
  • Simplify Research Council grant processes and speed up how UKRI investments are reviewed and approved.

The report also includes an analysis of Conservative proposals to introduce a British version of the American DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). This section tracks the history of ARPA/DARPA in the US, noting that it is free from the constraints of peer review and as such is freer to support risky projects with a significant chance of failure. The report outlines how such a body might work in the UK, and states that lessons could be learned from how confidently US funders track and invest in technology compared with a relative lack of confidence and doubts about the UK's capabilities that exists within the UK.

David Willetts, Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, said:

“These proposals are intended to promote one of Britain’s greatest single intellectual and cultural achievements – the vigour and creativeness of our research community. From producing Nobel Prize winners to supporting technicians maintaining and developing the kit which makes their discoveries possible, excellent R&D underpins Britain’s distinctive and wide-ranging research base. But we need to ensure extra funding is well-spent, enabling us to harness research to create wealth and prosperity to boost our living standards in the future. This 12-point plan shows how we could achieve that.”

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