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Government must urgently reconsider research budget cuts

@UniversitiesUK has today (16 Mar) written to the government seeking urgent clarity on the future of funding for UK science and research.

Although the government’s Integrated Review – published today (16 Mar) – reaffirms its aim to secure the UK’s position as a global science superpower, the announcement coincides with reports that the government is preparing to significantly cut the budget for research.

This comes hard on the heels of a confirmed £120 million shortfall for research funded from the overseas development budget, which has forced universities across the country to abandon current research projects with international partners.

Writing in a letter to the Prime Minister, Professor Julia Buckingham, President, Universities UK said:

“…[universities] are increasingly alarmed by reports that the Treasury has not made funding available to support the UK’s association to Horizon Europe.

“If this position is maintained, it will amount to an effective cut in excess of £1 billion, equivalent to cutting more than 18,000 full-time academic research posts and weakening the UK’s attractiveness as a destination for talented researchers and private and foreign investment. It will also undermine the credibility of the government’s expressed ambitions to provide global scientific leadership, set out in today’s Integrated Review.”

The letter concludes by urging the Prime Minister to intervene in discussions between the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and HM Treasury, to prevent this outcome.

Other points made in the letter:

  • A £1 billion reduction in domestic research funding is roughly equivalent to the total research and innovation budgets of the Medical Research Council and Science and Technology Facilities Council combined.
  • It would also lead to a further reduction of up to £1.6 billion in private R&D investment which would have been stimulated through public investment.
  • The cut comes at a time when the UK’s largest international competitors – including the United States and China – are currently ramping up their investment in science.

The government’s Integrated Review, published today, highlights the critical importance of research and innovation in securing the UK’s national security and future prosperity.

While universities welcome these ambitions, there are concerns that the rhetoric is not matched by the reality.

Indicative scale of the cuts compared to current research council budgets

  • According to the UKRI Corporate Plan for 2020-21, the total research and innovation budget for UKRI was £5.747 billion.
  • Of that, the total R&I budget for the Medical Research Council (MRC) was projected to be £637m and the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) was £451m.
  • This means that the likely £1 billion cuts to R&I funding that would be required if no additional funding is secured would be approximately equal to the total R&I budgets of the MRC and STFC (£1.09 billion).

Indicative scale of the cuts in terms of full-time research-only staff employed by UK universities

  • According to HESA, there were 42,080 full-time research-only staff employed at UK institutions in 2019–20.
  • The median salary for these staff in the £34,189-£45,892 range. Using the midpoint of this range gives an estimated salary of £40,040.
  • Employer costs (NI and pensions) are estimated at 35% – so an estimate for the per FTE cost is 40,040 x 1.35 = £54,054.
  • Therefore a £1 billion cut is equivalent to the total cost of 18,500 research staff – or 44% of the full-time research-only staff employed by UK universities.

    Multiplier effect of public investment in science and research

  • Research undertaken by Economic Insight on behalf of BIS (2015) found that an extra £1 of public funding for R&D gives rise to an increase in private funding of between £1.13 and £1.60.
  • As such, a £1 billion cut in public investment could mean £1.6 billion less of private investment.

Cuts announced last week to funding for international research collaboration already pose a significant challenge to our reputation and relationships with partners in developing nations. Last week’s announced cuts to ODA funded research leave a £120 million gap between the commitments that have already been made to projects which are currently underway, and the funding available. As a result universities across the country are having to suspend research projects before they have produced results, cut staff and withdraw from important international research partnerships in areas like infectious disease and climate change.

Universities are also urging government to back the statement of intent set out in the IR by making a clear and unambiguous commitment to properly funding our participation in Horizon Europe and restating its commitment to grow public investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

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