The UK government has pledged £250m in additional funding to academic research over the coming year, in a move aimed at easing concern among universities over financial support for science.
In an announcement on Thursday, the government also said for the first time that £400m previously earmarked for research would be used to “help to pay for” the UK’s continued association with the EU’s flagship Horizon science programme.
The figures mark a clear public commitment to help underwrite Horizon, after weeks of uncertainty, which left academics concerned that there would be no assistance to cover an estimated £1bn in annual fees required for the UK to remain part of the programme after Brexit.
The announcement still leaves institutions unclear as to how they will cover the remaining £350m in Horizon costs. It also does nothing to reverse a decision last month to cut £120m from research funding — halving the previous budget — from the overseas aid budget used to support joint research projects with universities in developing countries.
Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, which represents UK universities around the world, said: “This is unexpectedly brilliant, and a relief after what would have been a disaster.”
However, Joe Marshall, chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business, an association of universities and companies that invests in research and development, said he was “very concerned” about the Treasury’s announcement, arguing that the £400m now allocated to Horizon fees was originally designated for research funding within the UK.
“The move . . . not only impacts the UK’s chance to become a science superpower, but it will fundamentally impact the future of the UK science system and harm long-term economic recovery,” he said. “The decision directly impacts the research community, including the UK’s leading R&D intensive businesses, who we estimate will invest £1.6bn less in R&D each year as a result of cuts to public research funding.”
Are you under 35? Which issues concern you most?
We want to hear from readers aged between 16 and 35 on what life is like, and which problems need fixing most urgently. Housing? Education? Jobs? Pensions? The environment? Tell us about your experiences via a short survey.
Universities are continuing to brace for job cuts, cancelling existing projects and abandoning planned new ones supported by the overseas aid budget. At least five senior academics have resigned from advisory groups to UK Research and Innovation and its affiliates, which distribute government research money.
The Treasury said its funding announcement increased total government investment in R&D to £14.9bn, bringing its commitment to the highest level in four decades.
While the UK university sector has in the past been a net beneficiary of grants from Horizon funding, under post-Brexit rules it will in future only be able to receive funding up to the levels of its contributions to the programme.
The figure for the remaining Horizon costs has been amended since first publication of this article.