Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:51 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central 3:51 pm, 23rd March 2021

In my brief remarks, I should like to focus on the context of the Bill—on how we make the most of our country’s extraordinary research capacity, about which many Members have spoken.

Six years ago, I led a Westminster Hall debate highlighting the fact that the UK had fallen behind others in research and development investment, from a position in which we had led OECD countries. We had particularly fallen behind in publicly funded R&D, and I argued that we needed almost to double spending to 3% of GDP. Six years later, actual spending has not increased much—it is still about 1.6% or 1.7%. The Government are talking about their ambition to increase spending to 2.4% although, as ever, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric of the UK as a science superpower does not match the reality of his plans, as 2.4% simply brings us in line with the OECD countries overall. It is an ambition to be average.

There is an even bigger concern that the reality does not live up even to that target. The Bill proposes a new agency for research and innovation, but its funding is unclear. Some £50 million is set aside in 2021-22, but future funding remains unallocated, and there is no long-term investment model. The Government’s rhetoric is ambitious, talking the talk about an innovation nation, but real results are delivered through sustained investment in our brilliant science. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is obviously the most cited example today, and is the most current instance of the extraordinary capacity that we have as a country, but it was delivered through years of consistent funding and focus, incredible new science providing the route to reopening society and the economy.

The scientific community has made it clear that without certainty and stability we will lose out in the global market. I think one of my colleagues has cited this, but the vice- chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge Universities said:

“World-leading research cannot just be turned on and off like a tap.

Once our highly trained young researchers leave our universities they will not come back, and once they leave the country they will not return.”

Of course, the importance of research extends well beyond Oxbridge, throughout the universities sector and right across the country. It is worth remembering, at a time when we all share a concern about regional imbalance within our economy, that universities are one of the few national assets we have that are spread evenly right across the country, well positioned to generate economic growth in all regions and all nations of the UK.

The problem is that contrary to their stated intentions, the Government have started reducing research funding. First, as we have heard from others, £120 million is going from the international development budget, cutting about half of development-funded research activity. Only yesterday, the Royal Society described powerfully to me how this has forced it to withdraw funding from current projects that will not be able to continue, as well as shut down future opportunities, with huge implications not just for global research, but for the very relationships with the Indo-Pacific nations that the Prime Minister has been so keen to foster.

Secondly, there is the threat to give back word on funding the association with Horizon Europe. Clearly, participation in Horizon Europe is hugely welcome. The understanding has always been that it would continue as a separate funding stream. Now, apparently, there is a suggestion it might come from UKRI’s existing budget. When I met UKRI a month ago to discuss funding for extending studentships in cases where research has been delayed by covid, we discussed the immense pressure on its existing budgets. If it is expected to pay for Horizon out of existing budgets, that would take about 11% of its funding, or £1 billion. That is the equivalent of 18,000 research-focused academic jobs.

In a city of two large universities and more than 60,000 students, I can testify to how important research is to our communities and to our economy. We know that public sector research informs and improves private innovation, while generating revenue for the public purse. The University of Sheffield’s advanced manufacturing and research centre is a great example; one that is recognised internationally. From seedcorn public funding, it now has more than 125 industrial partners, and employs more than 500 researchers and engineers from all over the world, with the university at the centre of that network, pulling together that collaboration. Although the Prime Minister talks of increasing their investment in R&D, the Government are reportedly on course to miss their target of 2.4% of GDP spent on R&D by 2027, so now is the time to put their money where their mouth is and protect our research capabilities, and with that their futures.

In winding up, I ask the Minister to respond to three questions: what assessment has been made of the £120 million cut to official development assistance funding in R&D? Will she confirm that Horizon funding will not, in fact, be drawn from UKRI’s existing budget? Will she tell the House when the Secretary of State will be able to confirm what the UKRI budget will be for 2021-22?