The risks of research funding cuts

30 April 2019

Russell Group Senior Policy Analyst Stephanie Smith writes on the danger of Government funding cuts to vital research and development programmes.

Everywhere you go, your life is improved by breakthroughs developed in the labs and classrooms of UK universities. Treatments for diabetes and Parkinson’s, methods used by the police to cut violent crime, the sugar tax – even digital theology that can tackle online trolling. All of these are the work of UK academics, because the UK is a research powerhouse.

The stats bear this out: more than 80% of the research coming out of the 24 research-intensive Russell Group universities is classed as world-leading or internationally excellent. This brings knowledge, but also influence. The rest of the world wants to work with the UK on the latest discoveries and on shared challenges, from climate change to the data revolution. After Brexit, this will be crucial.

Luckily, research and development now sits at the heart of the government’s industrial strategy, which aims to put the UK at the forefront of cutting-edge industries of the future, including clean technology and artificial intelligence.

Yet there is inconsistency in Whitehall’s approach. While the left arm of government is urging universities to prioritise essential R&D, the right arm is making plans that could put the future of university research at risk.

A review of the funding of post-18 education, commissioned by the prime minister, is currently underway. The widely anticipated outcome is a cut in tuition fees. As you might expect, this has prompted some debate on the possible consequences for teaching, staff redundancies and course closures. Some universities may even be forced over the brink and student places will be limited.

Less discussed – but also important – is the potential impact of a funding cut on research. Right now, the cost of teaching UK students breaks roughly even, through tuition fees and some government top-up. Research, however, is underfunded, with research councils covering just 72% of actual costs and universities making up the rest through other means, such as philanthropic donations and international student fees.

If a cut to tuition fees leaves big holes in teaching budgets, it’s easy to see how universities could redirect funding from research. As a result, vital R&D would have to be scaled back, to the detriment of the NHS, British industry and UK citizens.

This would be a remarkable own goal. More than half of business investment in R&D in this country comes from overseas companies moving here to work with our world-class universities. Take AstraZeneca, which is moving its global headquarters to Cambridge to be next to the university. If the research generated by our universities goes into decline, these companies will go elsewhere, taking their vital investment with them.

This matters to the future of our economy because innovation underpinned by R&D drives growth in industrialised countries, according to Nobel prize winner Robert Solow. This is perhaps exemplified by the trajectory of South Korea, which in the 1960s was roughly as wealthy as Bolivia. Today it is the 11th biggest economy in the world, powered by high-tech exports and homegrown companies including Samsung, Hyundai and LG Electronics. It is no coincidence South Korea spends 4% of its GDP on R&D; by comparison the UK spends just 1.7%.

Some will say the way to plug future funding gaps is by recruiting more international students who pay higher fees. But these students are not a cash cow. They enrich our learning and boost the UK’s global partnerships, but we can’t expect them to prop up teaching and research budgets. In any case this wouldn’t be sustainable: numbers fluctuate from year to year and there is intense and growing global competition for international students.

Instead, ministers need to ensure teaching and research are both properly supported. Let’s not see UK R&D become collateral damage in the current review of post-18 education. In these uncertain times let’s play to one of the UK’s greatest strengths. We are a giant in innovation, so let’s make the most of it. Protecting and enhancing research will bring countless more benefits to us all.

Previously published by The Guardian.

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