Blog: Benefits of research for society

31 October 2018

Jess Cole, Russell Group's Head of Policy, explains why scientists need to do more to demonstrate the importance of sustainable funding for research. 

Today’s budget will set a clear direction for next year’s important comprehensive spending review, in which the chancellor will unveil spending plans for 2020 and beyond. Over the coming months, different sectors will be battling it out for their share of the pie. For the UK’s academic community, our push will be for increased investment in research and development.

We have a compelling case. Academic research drives prosperity and can help build a much more resilient and entrepreneurial UK economy, squarely rooted in incubating ideas which we turn into commercial success and skilled jobs.

There are many in government who recognise these returns. The Conservative manifesto committed to reversing decades of dwindling investment by boosting R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, as a step towards 3%. Similar targets are supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Around the world, governments are on similar or more ambitious trajectories, from Beijing to Berlin.

But what does the Treasury think? Few, in principle, would argue against the merits of investing in R&D. In practice, however, leveraging the kinds of private sums needed to meet the 2.4% target will require a significant down payment from the state. Only this will give industry the confidence to invest. The Campaign for Science and Engineering has estimated an extra £9bn a year of public investment will be needed within the next decade, but competition for extra funding will be fierce.

An additional £20bn also needs to be found for the NHS (and rightly so), and the government has made commitments on defence and the international development budget. In parliament the chancellor is under growing pressure to provide additional funding for the flagship universal credit scheme, as well as to provide extra support to the police.

Before the end of the year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is expected to change government accounting rules, which will cause student tuition loans to be brought on to the books today, and not deferred to the future. This could heap billions of pounds on to the deficit.

The chancellor is now expected to meet the Prime Minister’s conference speech promise to end austerity, although we don’t yet know how. And all while Brexit looms over our future economic outlook, limiting the Treasury’s room for manoeuvre.

In this climate of uncertainty and competing demands, the benefits of R&D spending must be set out more loudly and evocatively than ever. The UK’s science and research community must take the message beyond the converted, building a broader coalition of support among business and the public at large.

We can only do this if they understand the benefits to all parts of society that investing in research brings. Most people think of universities almost exclusively as places 18-year-olds go to study. They are unaware of the groundbreaking research taking place in our universities, and the positive impact it can have on their lives.

Investing in R&D and spending on health are not mutually exclusive. Pioneering research into heart disease at the University of Glasgow has led to vital new medicines and the introduction of specialist nurses who are saving the NHS millions every year. Additional funding will drive cutting-edge technologies, such as the joint work by the Universities of Bristol, Surrey and King’s College London on a 5G test network to deliver ultra-fast mobile connectivity, which could add up to £173bn to the economy. The University of Manchester has developed free software for companies to calculate the carbon footprint of their products, helping cut greenhouse gas emissions while saving businesses money too.

Behind the 2.4% figure are countless tangible benefits to our economy and society, which can transform everyday lives. We must now tell these stories in a way the wider public will find compelling. To use the politician’s litmus test, we need to make 2.4% work on the doorstep. If we can move from statistics to stories, we can build real momentum between now and the spending review.

Scientists: it’s time to step away from your spreadsheets and convince wider society of the benefits your work brings. Only then will we have the backing of those who hold the nation’s purse strings.

First published in the Guardian.

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