Boris Johnson set to break science funding pledge, officials say

LONDON — Boris Johnson is set to break his promise to increase public spending on science to £22 billion a year by 2024-25 in the U.K. annual budget coming Wednesday, according to two officials close to the discussions.

The move is being considered in a bid to keep a lid on debt levels that have boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but leading scientists and lawmakers warn it will have serious implications for the country’s economic growth.

Johnson committed to the €22 billion annual goal as part of a long-term commitment to boost total research and development (R&D) spending to 2.4 percent of GDP by 2027. This would cement Britain as a “science superpower,” the prime minister said in June.

Under the plans now being considered by ministers, science funding would increase at a slower pace, reaching between £19.5 billion and £21 billion in 2024-25, according to one official familiar with the discussions. The £22 billion per year target will be missed “by a year or two,” the official said.

A second official confirmed the Treasury is pushing for cuts in a move to reduce public debt, and said the issue is a “very lively discussion” in the run-up to Wednesday’s budget.

Leaders of the country’s academic societies are lobbying Chancellor Rishi Sunak to resist the cuts, arguing the timing could not be worse. Researchers fear being shut out from Horizon Europe, the EU’s major science funding program, as a result of a row between Brussels and London over trade arrangements in Northern Ireland.

Domestic science funding also took a hit earlier this year when the government cut aid spending, part of which funds academics employed by U.K. universities to work on international development issues.

“If the government gives up on its R&D investment plans, it is hard not to conclude that it has basically given up on economic growth,” said Stian Westlake, chief executive of the Royal Statistical Society and a former science policy adviser to the government.

The non-profit Campaign for Science and Engineering estimates that delaying the £22 billion target by three years would lead to a loss of £11 billion of private investment in R&D. Without this money, the U.K. would fail to reach the 2.4 percent goal, the lobby group warned.

After hearing the concerns in the U.K. parliament earlier this week, Greg Clark, the chair of the House of Commons science and technology committee, wrote to Johnson and Sunak urging them to “honour” the commitments made to U.K. researchers and warning them against the “immensely damaging” cuts to the target.

“At a time when the whole world has recognised the importance of science, technology and innovation to future prosperity as well as wellbeing, and when the UK has the advantage of a science and research base that is the envy of the world, it would be the wrong time to downgrade or defer the clear commitment that the Government has repeatedly, and quite rightly made, in ringing terms,” Clark said in his letter Thursday.

But Dominic Cummings, a former top aide to Johnson and a strong advocator for more science spending, said the sector needs a high profile public campaign such as those led by footballer Marcus Rashford to have an impact.

“If scientists et al want to stop this then they need to learn — only thing the trolley responds to is public pressure,” Cummings said in a tweet confirming he expected science spending to be downgraded.



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