Rishi Sunak’s expected decision to renege on targets for research and development spending will be a “kick in the teeth”, science and industry leaders have warned, as a pre-Budget spending battle raged.
Boris Johnson said in June he wanted to cement Britain’s position as a “science superpower”, a plan for the public sector to spend £22bn annually on R&D by 2024-5 was central to that objective.
But people close to discussions said on Thursday that commitments in the forthcoming spending review, part of the chancellor’s Budget next week, would not meet the 2024-5 target.
Scientific research organisations have warned that backtracking on the target date will jeopardise aims for the government’s levelling-up agenda, achieving net zero and will divert private investment needed to hit the broader target of overall R&D funding of 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product by 2027.
That later date is expected to be preserved although Greg Clark, Tory chair of the Commons science committee, noted that this was well beyond the date of the next general election.
“Failure to provide a clear path to £22bn will send a negative signal to business investors, which would be disastrous,” Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of sciences, said.
“After all the rhetoric about the UK as a scientific superpower, it would be a real kick in the teeth to not to honour the commitment.” Johnson this month promised to build a high productivity, high wage economy.
Science leaders promised a last-minute attempt to lobby the government to stick by its targets, with Smith due to meet Sunak alongside British Academy and Royal Academy of Engineering leaders on Friday.
But Sunak’s commitment to narrowing the deficit left little room for negotiations, said people close to the matter.
A person with knowledge of internal Treasury discussions said the 2024 target would be “dropped”, amid scepticism in the department that increasing research spending to £22bn would deliver promised economic benefits.
The Treasury issued a statement that omitted any reference to 2024. A spokesman said: “We remain committed to increasing public expenditure on R&D to £22 billion and are investing record amounts to secure the UK’s future as a global science superpower.”
Clark, a former business secretary, wrote to Johnson, Sunak and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, on Thursday to warn against “immensely damaging” cuts to the 2024-5 target.
Clark said it was “imperative to honour commitments made if the UK is to advance your intended ambition for the UK to be a science superpower”, and that reneging on them would undermine private sector confidence.
The £22bn target, pledged in the 2020 budget and innovation strategy, represents a significant increase from current R&D spending, which was £14.9bn this year.
Speaking at the Science and Technology Committee yesterday, chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute Sir Paul Nurse urged the government to “invest now”, warning money beyond the current parliament “will not have any effect”.
Sir Andrew Mackenzie, chair of UK Research and Innovation, told MPs the research community had been “given a very fair hearing” by the government. “I feel listened to,” he said. “I haven’t pussyfooted around.”
But Clark, in a separate letter to Mackenzie, said the science committee wanted him to engage in some potentially “challenging, robust and forensic discussions” to ensure commitments were met.
In a suggestion that MPs believed Mackenzie was not fighting hard enough for the cash, Clark added: “We were concerned by the implications of your statement to the committee that “I do want them to realise that I will be a loyal servant”.
Daniel Rathbone, assistant director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a lobby group, said a three-year delay in reaching the £22bn target could cost the UK over £11bn in private investment and the 2.4 per cent target.
One person briefed on the negotiations said the Treasury intended to include large amounts of spending related to reaching the net zero target in what remained of the research spending pledge, which is still expected to be significant.
“As much as ‘net zero’ spending as possible will be included,” the person added. “It will take in all departments and, there will be an expansive interpretation of what counts as ‘research’ spending.”