Universities demand clarity on ‘£1 billion research cut’

Universities UK fears universities face an effective £1 billion (US$1.4 billion) cut in research funding because the Treasury has failed to clarify if it will allow funding of the United Kingdom’s association to Horizon Europe, the European Union’s science and innovation programme, to go ahead.

Universities UK has written to the government seeking urgent clarity on the future of funding for UK science and research.

The vice-chancellors’ body said that given the silence regarding the scheme in the Chancellor’s Budget, announced on 3 March, there are concerns that the UK government is not willing to contribute the cost of participating in the scheme, which was previously included in EU membership fees, and instead expects to draw from the existing research budget to cover costs.

Universities UK said that although the government’s Integrated Review – published on 16 March – reaffirms its aim to secure the UK’s position as a global science superpower, the announcement coincides with “reports that the government is preparing to significantly cut the budget for research”.

This comes hard on the heels of a confirmed £120 million (US$167 million) shortfall for research funded from the Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget, which has forced universities across the country to abandon current research projects with international partners.

The UK Research and Innovation agency (UKRI), which controls science funding, confirmed earlier this month that its budget for international development projects will be cut from £245 million to £125 million.

‘Increasingly alarmed’

Writing in a letter to the prime minister, Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK, said universities are “increasingly alarmed” by reports that the Treasury has not made funding available to support the UK’s association to Horizon Europe.

“If this position is maintained, it will amount to an effective cut in excess of £1 billion, 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.”

Universities UK’s letter concludes by urging the prime minister to intervene in discussions between the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and HM Treasury, to prevent this outcome.

Universities UK said a £1 billion reduction in domestic research funding is roughly equivalent to the total research and innovation budgets of the Medical Research Council and the Science and Technology Facilities Council combined.

It would also lead to a further reduction of up to £1.6 billion in private R&D investment which would have been stimulated through public investment.

The cut comes at a time when the UK’s largest international competitors – including the United States and China – are currently ramping up their investment in science, the letter said.

Horizon Europe is the €95.5 billion (US$114 billion) successor to the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. The UK’s continuing participation in the programme post-Brexit was clarified by the terms of the future trade and cooperation agreement between the UK and the EU.

Under a draft joint declaration on participation in union programmes published in January, the UK will participate as an associated country.

Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of leading research universities, said that while the research community welcomed the news when the UK government successfully secured association to Horizon Europe as part of its trade deal with the EU, “if that achievement is not followed through with the necessary additional investment, it could leave a shortfall of up to £1 billion this year in existing R&D budgets”.

‘Serious blow’ to science and research

“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.

He said this comes on top of the cuts in research funding from development aid, “undermining 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,” Bradshaw said.

After the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced his Budget on 3 March, Professor Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said that for a Chancellor who wants the UK to be “at the forefront of the next scientific and technological revolutions”, announcements on science funding were notably scarce in his Budget.

“There was no provision for the UK’s agreed participation in Horizon Europe, expected to cost around £2 billion per annum, no specific measures to alleviate COVID pressure on the UKRI’s budget, or support for research charities.

“Meeting these costs from the existing science budget would have an impact across the UK’s science and research activity.”

She said the UK’s strength in research and innovation can drive recovery and shape the future economy. “But parts of the system have taken significant blows over the last year. For research and innovation to support UK recovery and growth, it must start from a strong foundation itself.”

Deep cuts to cutting-edge research

Universities UK said the cut in Official Development Assistance (ODA) – which stems from the Chancellor’s decision to slash ODA from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income (GNI) which, at a time of reduced GNI due to the pandemic, reduces spending from £14 billion to around £10 billion – will mean deep cuts to funds already committed to cutting-edge research collaborations between UK universities and leading international partners.

“The scale of the planned reduction will result in the termination of existing and future research projects, damaging the sector’s international standing and reducing its capacity to drive economic growth and prosperity in the UK,” it said in a statement on its website.

Buckingham said: “ODA funding has enabled universities to strengthen their global networks and improve millions of lives across the world, while providing opportunities for UK researchers to advance their careers and generate knock-on benefits for local communities and the wider economy.

“The government’s decision to impose a cut of this scale at such a late stage in the financial year will leave many universities facing difficult decisions, reducing their ability to collaborate with international partners and constraining the UK’s role in combating the world’s most pressing challenges.

“This decision runs counter to the government’s stated commitment to increase investment in R&D to position the UK as a scientific superpower and is especially disappointing in light of the enormous contribution universities have made – including through ODA-funded projects – towards supporting the country through the COVID-19 pandemic.”