The British government has announced a 15 percent increase in public funding for research and development as part of its 2020 budget in a move that was generally welcomed by scientists, Science reported yesterday (March 12). The boost, which represents the largest-ever year-over-year increase in R&D funding, is to be followed by further injections of money over the next three years, including £800 million for an agency modeled after DARPA in the US. Full details of how the money is to be used won’t be available until the government’s spending review later this year.
“In a welcome move, the Government has supercharged public investment in science, delivering investment faster and further than it had promised,” Sarah Main, the executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, says in a statement. “This investment has the potential to accelerate the Government’s efforts to tackle challenges such as net zero [carbon emissions], flooding and new treatments for diseases, such as coronavirus.”
The budget allocation exceeds pledges made last year by the UK Conservative Party. In 2019, the party had promised to increase funding to £18 billion by 2024–2025, and the new plans raise that figure to £22 billion. The government also aims to stimulate funding from the private sector in order to bring overall R&D spending to 2.4 percent of GDP.
The £800 million spent on what politicians have dubbed “British ARPA,” after the US agency, will fund high-risk, high-gain research proposals in emerging fields, according to the BBC. The president of the UK’s Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan, tells the BBC that the investment shows the government is trying new strategies, adding, “we must also continue to build on our great strengths in the basic research that feeds the innovation of the future and will ensure the UK maintains its status as a global science leader.”
Some scientists have called for more information on how exactly the money will be spent, noting that details about British ARPA, or BARPA, and other aspects of the budget were scarce in today’s announcements. “I’m concerned about how decisions were made about the allocation of all this money,” British neurobiologist Colin Blakemore, now at the City University of Hong Kong, says in a statement, Science reports, “and what that means for future decisions about the funding of science.”
The spending boost in R&D was accompanied by increases in several other areas of public funding, marking the end to years of austerity policies by the UK’s conservative government. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, an economic thinktank based in London, notes that with cuts due to austerity and the loss of EU funding following the UK’s exit from the EU, public spending per person for most public services will remain well below 2010 levels, and won’t reach them again until 2025.
Catherine Offord is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at email@example.com.