The UK government is being warned it risks doing serious, long-term harm to the country’s university research base.
The vice chancellors of Cambridge and Oxford have told ministers not to take funds for continued participation in the EU’s science programme from within the existing national research budget.
To do so would effectively represent a £1bn cut in support, they write in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
The government says it will set out its plans for R&D spend shortly.
Prof Stephen Toope and Prof Louise Richardson’s comments voice a concern that has been growing in the research establishment ever since the Brexit Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) was signed at the end of last year.
The TCA made provision for Britain to associate to the EU’s research framework, the latest iteration of which is called Horizon Europe. But the London government has not yet made clear how a subscription – likely to be €1-2bn a year – will be funded.
Profs Toope and Richardson say the money must be additional; it cannot be taken from the existing budget line of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the agency responsible for dispersing grants for university research.
Were that to happen, “the consequences for British science and innovation will be nothing short of calamitous”, their Telegraph comment says.
“It would… be deeply damaging,” Oxford’s Prof Richardson told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.
“Treasury is facing many difficult decisions at the moment. But we think this is an investment in our future that we as universities can help the government realise its ambitions to be a science superpower, and, indeed, to be a ‘Global Britain’.”
Last week UKRI wrote to universities to tell them that funding was being reduced in another area of international collaboration – those projects supported through the overseas aid budget.
The agency said it would now have only £125m to distribute in the coming financial year, even though it had already approved support for projects to the tune of £245m, which itself was well short of the £500m originally promised through what’s called Official Development Assistance (ODA).
Projects affected range across the board from global health and green energy to agriculture, violence reduction, and women’s safety.
Prof Jenni Barclay, a volcanologist at the University of East Anglia, helped organise a rapid petition to oppose the ODA cut, collecting more than 3,000 signatures.
“What’s absolutely unprecedented about the action that’s having to be taken because of the size of this cut is that this is stopping projects that have been competitively funded, and are already in process,” she told the BBC’s Science In Action programme on the BBC World Service.
It is the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) which leads on science funding in the UK.
A spokesperson told the BBC this week that the UK remained “a world-leading aid donor” and would be spending “more than £10bn this year to address poverty, tackle climate change, fight Covid and improve global health”.
In response to the letter from Profs Toope and Richardson, BEIS pointed to the written answer science minister Amanda Solloway gave to her shadow, Labour’s Chi Onwurah, at the beginning of the month.
This stated that the government would set out R&D spending plans for 2021/22 – including funding for Horizon Europe – in due course.
“Participating in Horizon Europe will strengthen R&D to build on the UK’s world class reputation for research and innovation,” the minister said.
“It provides exciting opportunities for UK businesses and SMEs to support growth and innovation, working with our international partners. Business organisations and researchers have strongly welcomed us securing this outcome.”