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£1bn funding cut threatens UK “science superpower” position – UUK

The president of Universities UK has written a letter to British prime minister Boris Johnson urging him to prevent reported cuts for science and research funding. 

The president of Universities UK has urged Boris Johnson to prevent cuts to science and research funding. Photo: Pexels

"It could leave a shortfall of up to £1billion this year in existing R&D budgets"

The UK government has retained participation in Horizon Europe, the EU’s research and innovation framework program running from 2021-2027, as part of its Brexit trade deal with the union. 

“[The cuts will be] equivalent to cutting more than 18,000 full-time academic research posts”

However, UUK said there have been reports that the treasury has not made funding available to support the UK’s association to Horizon Europe – leading to questions about where the money will come from. 

The organisation is concerned that if this position is maintained, and if the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is required to fund the costs of participation out of the existing science budget, it will amount to an effective cut of something in excess of £1bn.

Julia Buckingham, president of UUK, said that this will be “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 the Integrated Review,” she added. 

Buckingham noted that the £1bn cut would be roughly equivalent to the cost of funding the entire Medical Research Council and Science and Technology Facilities Council combined – something she said is “deeply concerning”. 

UUK said that universities are urging government to make a “clear and unambiguous commitment” to properly funding the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe and restating its commitment to grow public investment in research and development to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

Recently, the UK government decided to drop overseas aid spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income. UK Research and Innovation has confirmed a reduction in the ODA budget that will lead initially to a £120 million shortfall for 2021–22. 

UUK has said this will mean “deep cuts to funds already committed to cutting-edge research collaborations between UK universities and leading international partners”. 

Buckingham explained that as the UK’s competitors – including both the US and China – ramp up investment in science, the UK cannot “deliberately choose the opposite direction of travel”. 

“Such a decision would diminish us, now and in the long term, and run counter to our shared ambition for the UK to be a science superpower. I urge you in the strongest possible terms to intervene to prevent this outcome,” she said in her letter to the prime minister. 

“Taken together, these cuts put our global reputation as a science superpower at risk”

The concerns around research funding cuts were echoed by Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group

“The research community welcomed the news when government successfully secured association to Horizon Europe as part of its trade deal with the EU,” he said. 

“However, if that achievement is not followed through with the necessary additional investment it could leave a shortfall of up to £1bn this year in existing R&D budgets. 

“That reduction would not only deal a serious blow to UK science and research, but it will hobble the government’s ambitions for a swift, innovation-fuelled recovery.” 

Bradshaw said, 0n top of £120m of ODA-funded research cuts, it will “[undermine] years of work to establish science diplomacy links across the globe with research that changes lives on the ground”.

“Taken together, these cuts put our global reputation as a science superpower at risk. We are calling on the government to provide urgent clarity on its plans to fund Horizon Europe and on its commitment to core research and innovation investment in the UK,” he added.  

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