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Forget the 2.4% target for research and development spending

  • 28 June 2019
  • By Nick Hillman

When higher education policy conversations turn to research, they tend to dwell upon the UK Government’s commitment to increase the share of GDP spent on research and development (R&D) by public and private sources to 2.4% by 2027.

This is a huge amount of money – more than three times as much as we spend on international development (0.7%), for example. But it is relatively uncontroversial and enjoys support across the political spectrum.

The research community hopes the new Prime Minister will stick to the commitment and that all the new spending commitments in other areas currently being made by Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson don’t signal a weakening of resolve on research spending.

For example, the President of the Royal Society, Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, has just told BBC News that:

We need Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt to really get behind the 2.4% target, including committing to investing the government’s own share, and show us what a real vision for future prosperity looks like.

But, as a sector, we are missing a trick. The actual commitment, as outlined in the 2017 Conservative election manifesto is to 3% of GDP. The words are:

At the last [2016] autumn statement, we announced a significant increase in government investment in research and development. We will deliver this and ensure further growth so that overall, as a nation, we meet the current OECD average for investment in R&D – that is, 2.4 per cent of GDP – within ten years, with a longer-term goal of three per cent. We will increase the number of scientists working in the UK and enable leading scientists from around the world to work here. We will work hard to ensure we have a regulatory environment that encourages innovation.

By continuing to focus on the 2.4% rather than the 3%, we are giving policymakers an excuse to be less ambitious, including at the forthcoming spending review. This makes it easier for them to set out shorter-term plans and to aim for the 2.4% OECD average rather than the more stellar performance of those who spend the most. In 2018, seven countries spent at least 3% of their GDP on research and development, including Germany (3.0%), Sweden (3.3%), Israel (4.5%) and South Korea (4.6%).

We should stop talking about the 2.4% and start talking about the 3%.

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