UK lays out future science strategy

17 Mar 2022 | News

Five year plan for research and innovation puts emphasis on attracting talent from abroad, budget increases to pull in more private sector funding and a reform of funding agencies

The UK government has renewed its commitment to reaching a public and private R&D spending target of 2.4% of GDP by 2027, in a new five-year strategy aimed at strengthening the country’s R&D system.

The research and innovation strategy 2022 to 2027 published today, includes the aim that the UK continues to be a top destination for talented scientists.

As the government made its strategy public, Peter Highnam announced on Thursday he would no longer take the role of chief executive at the UK’s newly established Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA). The agency is a key institution in UK’s innovation policy agenda and was modelled after the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Back in February, the UK government announced with great fanfare the recruitment of Highnam, a deputy director at DARPA.

The UK government had previously announced plans to increase public investment in R&D from £14.9 billion to £20 billion by 2024/5, which would then leverage further funding from the private sector. That target is in doubt though, since a previous commitment that the budget will reach £22 billion before the end 2024 was pushed back by two years, to 2026/7.

After breaking away from the EU, the UK wants to continue fostering outstanding research institutions and infrastructures, as well as strengthening international R&D cooperation. But establishing new international science links after Brexit has not been easy.

The UK is still being kept outside the EU’s €95.5 billion research programme, Horizon Europe. Brussels and London are still haggling over the terms of the post-Brexit trade agreement and, unless the impasse is broken, the UK will not be able to associate in the research programme. The UK has extended a Horizon funding guarantee until 2022 for researchers affected by the association saga.

In the new strategy, the government puts a lot of emphasis on attracting talent from abroad and notes it needs to “grow and diversify” its R&D workforce by 150,000 people over the next eight years. However, first attempts to put together post-Brexit talent hunting programmes have not been very successful. A visa scheme aimed at attracting prestigious scientists from around the world has failed to attract applicants.

In the small print, the government says it wants to reform UKRI, the umbrella organisation that directs research and innovation, reducing its operating expenditure over the next three years. According to the strategy, UKRI should implement a fully digital funding system for research, that allows applicants to collaborate, get guidance and submit applications.

Research councils are also expected to align their work to the strategy and to work with each other more often, and in a more organised fashion. Every council will publish strategic delivery plans later this year.

The full strategy is available here.

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