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Autumn statement: UK must commit to science R&D

16 November 2022

By the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Biology and the Royal Society of Chemistry

Our scientists are positioning us to exploit the next industrial revolution. Short-termist spending cuts would impede their progress and hobble the forward-thinking technologies set to drive growth.

This week sees the release of the autumn statement – Jeremy Hunt’s first set piece as chancellor. Both the markets and the public will be watching closely to see what changes it introduces.

Much of the reaction will focus on cost-of-living measures and public services, but other, longer-term economic decisions will also become plain.

The statement needs to restart economic growth and build the foundations for sustainable, research and innovation-led progress.

Short-termist spending cuts to the science and research budget would be a huge mistake, hobbling our economic recovery and jeopardising the technologies, jobs and businesses of the tomorrow.

The UK currently leads the world in some of the key technologies of the future. Quantum technologies, fusion power generation, precision medicine, responsible innovation in farming practices, offshore wind, and advanced materials for energy and the environment.

Wind turbines on a blue sea in an offshore wind farm

Our scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs are positioning us to exploit the next industrial revolution – one built upon clean energy, phenomenal computing power and transformational medical advances.

If we can make the transition successfully then the future can be one of opportunity for our young people, growth, sustainable prosperity and a greener economy.

But that technologically advanced, high-wage, innovative UK economy is by no means guaranteed. It can only be secured with the right choices and the right investment.

We are professional bodies and learned societies representing more than 100,000 scientists across the UK. The scientific communities we represent and nurture make a significant contribution to our society, improving health, and providing the materials and technologies we use every day. In purely monetary terms, the sciences contribute hundreds of billions of pounds to the UK economy every year.

The chancellor would be wrong to treat the government’s contribution towards this success story as a low-hanging fruit, ripe for spending cuts and available at little cost to the future of our prosperity.

Government’s role in science, delivered through public investment in research and development (R&D), generates significant and ongoing economic returns, as well as providing the certainty which draws in private sector investment.

The chancellor would be wrong to treat the government’s contribution towards science as a low-hanging fruit

Research by the Campaign for Science and Engineering has estimated an annual return on investment from R&D of 20-30% and UK Research and Innovation estimates that every £1 invested by the state generates around £7 of net benefit to the UK.

Government investment in R&D works. It delivers jobs and growth in the UK economy, it builds and nurtures all our futures.

So on behalf of the UK science community, we are today calling on the chancellor to stick to the commitment to increase public investment in R&D, to reach £22bn a year by 2026/27, and to reiterate the crucial role of R&D in the government’s plan for growth.

A female scientist in a laboratory researching a contagious disease

We also ask for a long-term strategy and plan for further investment in research funding, international research collaboration, science education, scientific infrastructure, and innovation.

These things are crucial to ensure the UK remains globally competitive, is equipped to meet challenges such as climate change and future pandemics, and can deliver a strong, prosperous and healthy future for our economy, our planet and our society.

The UK economy faces real challenges and there are tough decisions to make. But paying for today’s problems by undermining our future prosperity is not the answer – we urge the chancellor to make the right choices for long-term economic growth.

By the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Biology and the Royal Society of Chemistry