When new UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke in Manchester last week, few noticed an audacious pledge: “We will,” he said, “double down on our investment in R&D.”
The science community is now waiting to see whether he will back this pledge up with a financial commitment similar to that made by Theresa May’s government (£7bn (~€7.6bn) extra R&D funding over five years – the biggest increase in public R&D in the UK on record) and confirm his support for the current target to raise total UK R&D investment from 1.7% to 2.4% GDP by 2027.
There is a general consensus that reaching that target would require a massive increase in private R&D investment, which the government has little control over. Instead, Johnson should focus on what he can control, the public R&D budget, which stands at £9bn a year. “Doubling down” would mean increasing this to £18bn or more.
Increasing public R&D spending would not only crowd-in private sector investment, it would also send a strong signal to international investors that the UK will remain a vibrant knowledge economy post-Brexit. But such an increase would force Johnson to decide on an appropriate balance of public R&D spending: how much should go on blue-skies research versus R&D to tackle challenges such as climate change or support new technologies. This will involve tough decisions with winners and losers. There is a strong case that citizens should be involved in this process.
At the same time, Johnson should clarify UK access to EU science programmes. The UK will need an association agreement for researchers here to be able to take part in the EU’s new €100bn Horizon Europe fund. He should make sure the post-Brexit visa regime works for science and research: world-class R&D demands access to world class talent.
Encouraging private sector R&D is more challenging. Companies will only invest if they believe they will see a return. Of the £18.7bn spent on R&D by UK businesses, most is concentrated in sectors where the returns are clear, like pharmaceuticals. Government should experiment and test what drives companies in other sectors to innovate (particularly the service sector, which contributes 80% of UK GDP). This will involve patience, an open mind, an appetite for reform and data and evidence.
Finally, the PM must be clearer about why R&D matters. R&D is important because it makes life better. As an input to innovation it leads to all sorts of new things: new treatments, new ways to create and store energy or new tech. If Boris Johnson is serious about doubling down on R&D, he should be clearer about what it is for, who will benefit and how it can be harnessed for public good.
Director of Innovation Policy