Scienceogram UK

Making sense of science spending

Autumn Statement: What does £2bn mean?

In last week’s Autumn Statement, the Chancellor made an announcement which surprised and excited the scientific community: a boost of £2bn a year for UK government funding of R&D. So, what does it mean?

The simplest way we could think to express it was to look at how this new money is going to affect overall levels of public-funded R&D between 2010 and 2020. We’ve drawn a graph looking at this in two different ways: in ‘real terms’, correcting for the effects of inflation; and as a percentage of GDP, expressing the amount we invest in research as a fraction of the overall size of the economy. The graph is based on actual government data until 2014, and our projections out to 2020 under both the old regime, and under plans announced last Wednesday with the extra cash included.

Graph showing UK public funding of R&D, 2010–2020

This graph comes with a some significant caveats (and for the data geeks we’ve gone into those below) but, nonetheless, two things are clear: firstly, this boost is very welcome but, secondly, there is plenty more still to do.

Firstly, this is finally some good news in real terms. The Science Budget was frozen in cash terms back in 2010, which means its buying power has been slowly dwindling since. The new investment is slowly ramped up to £2bn per year by 2020, and should more than cancel out the effects of inflation. This means that there should be more public-funded R&D being done in the UK in 2020 than 2010.

However, looking at this as a fraction of GDP, the story is more one of stabilisation. In spite of this budgetary bonus, UK R&D will still be around 10% lower in 2020 than 2010 when seen as a fraction of the whole economy. That said, this is significantly better than the alternative—a reasonable reading of the government’s previous plans would’ve put R&D more than 25% down by 2020 as a fraction of GDP.

We should celebrate this windfall for science—but we should also continue to make the case for funding of research, and keep an eye on what’s to come.

The major short-term risk for UK science is our relationship with the EU. The exchange rate shock following the referendum result is already increasing the cost of doing research in the UK and, if British scientists lose access to EU research funds, that could come close to cancelling out this £2bn: total EU funding of UK R&D is estimated at around £1.5bn per year.

In the bigger picture, it looks like UK R&D funding will stay at the back of the pack internationally. With investment at less than 0.5% of GDP, we’re in last place the G8, far below countries like the US and Germany, and even below average for the EU taken as a whole. If our projections are broadly correct, this fraction won’t have changed much by 2020.

Finally, of course, the classic Scienceogram observations still apply: even with a 20% boost, we’ll still only be spending pennies researching deadly diseases and vital energy technologies.

This new cash is definitely a step in the right direction for science, and we should celebrate the government backing up its warm words about science with actual investment. Perhaps, if we keep making the case for research, we can turn this small step into a giant leap.

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