This article, by NCUB Chair Sam Laidlaw, was published in The Times on 11th October 2021.
The UK has a proud history of inventions. From the steam engine to computer programming, research and development has played a crucial role in powering our economy, advancing medical science and enabling social mobility.
But as we emerge from the pandemic and re-establish ourselves on the global stage after Brexit, there are worrying signs that steady growth in private research spending is slowing. Between 2018 and 2019, just before the pandemic hit, growth in private research and development investment in the UK stood at its lowest level since 2012.
Overall, British investment in research and development as a percentage of GDP is now well below the OECD average and 40 per cent less than that of some of our European neighbours.
Britain is not the only country fighting for top place in the global research and innovation race. Many countries recognise that research and innovation capabilities will determine the leading economies of the future, and have ambitious plans to boost their research spending to attract more global investment.
As the government prepares for what is arguably the most important spending review in modern times, it must commit to genuine and sizeable uplifts in research spending. Britain must also create the best possible environment for a more innovative economy to grow. This requires a better understanding of what encourages private R&D investment and how Britain can become even more competitive.
Research and development investment does not just benefit those who receive funding, but society and the economy as a whole. The best estimates suggest that if the UK succeeds in raising public and private spending to 2.4 per cent of GDP, as the government is targeting, annual GDP will be £30.5 billion higher and there will be an extra 80,000 high-skilled jobs created by 2027. This would be a huge boost to economic recovery.
Beyond the economic benefits, investing in research has much wider benefits too. Covid-19 has exemplified the critical role of British medical research in improving public health.
At the Conservative party conference last week, the prime minister rightly acknowledged that UK science has a fundamental role to play in tackling climate change, for it is true that to achieve net zero targets, we will be depending on technologies not yet invented.
The UK won’t capture new investments overnight, nor are there any guarantees that businesses currently investing in research and innovation in the UK will stay. But we cannot continue as we are and expect private research and innovation to flow into Britain.
As a first step, the UK needs to spend more on research. Had we invested at the OECD average for the last ten years, research, development and innovation would have benefited from an additional £44 billion of investment.
The government has a plan for public research funding to reach £22 billion over the next four years. It is critical that this commitment is upheld. Increases must be genuine and not the result of reclassification for accounting purposes. They must also be immediate, or businesses looking to invest post-pandemic will go elsewhere.
Public investment underpins private investment. For every £1 of public funding invested in research, on average the private sector puts in an extra £2. The UK research base is exceptionally good at attracting private investment, with public research funding leveraging far greater levels of private investment than most of the UK’s competitors.The opportunities are huge. The UK must work hard and deliberately to capture a share of global investment as businesses look to recover and adapt to the future.