Economic turmoil spared science from UK budget cuts

The Future of Science and Innovation in the UK: Boris Johnson, Boris Hunt, and the new government department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The finance minister says that the economic crisis will not hurt plans for research spending.

But during today’s address on government spending — called the Autumn Statement — Hunt, the chancellor of the Exchequer, told parliament that he would protect the entire UK research budget because cutting it would be a “profound mistake”. He added that the government will invest £20 billion (US$24 billion) per year in science by the 2024–25 financial year — a commitment made by the government of former prime minister Boris Johnson that was left hanging in the balance when he resigned in July. During her 44 day tenure, she was tight-lipped on science spending.

Stephanie Smith, head of policy at the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK research universities, tweeted: “Big sigh of relief” at the news the science budget would be protected.

Anne Johnson, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences in London, welcomed the decision in “challenging economic times”. She warned that there could still be problems with research. “Inflation will continue to put pressure on budgets in real terms, and we must protect collaborations between UK researchers and partners globally.”

The announcement was said to be good by Paul Nurse, who runs the Francis Crick Institute.

Rishi Sunak, who served as chancellor in Johnson’s government, replaced Truss as prime minister in October. Until today, it was not clear what this change in leadership meant for the future of science spending.

Hunt made a pledge in the past to spend 2.4% of the GDP on research and development by the year 2027. The UK Office for National Statistics, a non-ministerial government body, said that the government has met this target. Changes in the way that research and development spending is calculated is the reason for this.

The website for the government department that oversees science spending, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), lists both Freeman and Ghani as “minister of state”, with Ghani also listed as “minister for science and investment security”. A spokesperson for BEIS could not say who has overall responsibility for science, stating that the ministerial portfolios “are not formally confirmed”.

The United Kingdom has a new government department dedicated to science and technology. On 7 February, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak split the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) into three new departments, creating the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, and the Department for Business and Trade.

The Secretary of State for the new department has been made, and the science minister has been promoted to minister of state.

The impact of R&D taxes and access to European Research Programmes on the future of the Department for Science and Innovation (DEEP INTERVIEW)

Rathbone highlighted reform of the R&D tax relief system and access to European research programmes as two big issues the new department needs to tackle.

There is symbolic value in giving science more visibility and a seat at the cabinet table, but “I’m not sure tinkering with the name badges and furniture in Whitehall has any real relevance to the fundamental challenges in the real economy and the research economy”, says Wilsdon.

James Wilsdon, who studies science policy at University College London, says it seems strange to see such a big change in the machinery of government when the country is expecting a general election to be called relatively soon. “It does have a bit of a ‘deckchairs on the Titanic’ feel,” he says.

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