On the 22nd November, the Government published its Autumn Statement. This piece, published in Research Professional under the title Economic clouds cast gloom over the UK’s ambitions for R&D, offers my somewhat gloomy perspective on the implications of the statement for science and innovation.
This government has always placed a strong rhetorical emphasis on the centrality of science and innovation in its plans for the nation, though with three different Prime Ministers, there’ve been some changes in emphasis.
This continues in the Autumn Statement: a whole section is devoted to “Supporting the UK’s scientists and innovators”, building on the March 2023 publication of a “UK Science and Technology Framework”, which recommitted to increasing total public spending on research to £20 billion in FY 2024/25. But before going into detail on the new science-related announcements in the Autumn Statement, let’s step back to look at the wider economic context in which innovation strategy is being made.
There are two giant clouds in the economic backdrop the Autumn Statement. One is inflation; the other is economic growth – or, to be more precise, the lack of it.
Inflation, in some senses, is good for governments. It allows them to raise taxes without the need for embarrassing announcements, as people’s cost-of-living wage rises take them into higher tax brackets. And by simply failing to raise budgets in line with inflation, public spending cuts can be imposed by default. But if it’s good for governments, it’s bad for politicians, because people notice rising prices, and they don’t like it. And the real effect of stealth public spending cuts do, nonetheless, materialise.
The effect of the inflation we’ve seen since 2021 is a rise in price levels of around 20%; while the inflation rate peak has surely passed, prices will continue to rise. We can already see the effect on the science budget. Back in 2021, the Comprehensive Spending Review announced a significant increase in the overall government research budget, from £15 billion to £20 billion in 24/25. By next year, though, the effect of inflation will have been to erode that increase in real terms, from £5 billion to less than £2 billion in 2021 money. The effect on Core Research is even more dramatic; in effect inflation will have almost totally wiped out the increase promised in 2021.
Our other problem is persistent slow economic growth, as I discussed here. The underlying cause of this is the dramatic decrease in productivity growth since the financial crisis of 2008. The consequence is the prospect of two full decades without any real growth in wages, and, for the government, the need to simultaneously increase the tax burden and squeeze public services in an attempt to stabilise public debt.
The detailed causes of the productivity slowdown are much debated, but the root of it seems to be the UK’s persistent lack of investment, both public and private (see The Productivity Agenda for a broad discussion). Relatively low levels of R&D are part of this. The most significant policy change in the Autumn Statement does recognise this – it is a tax break allowing companies to set the full cost of new plant and machinery against corporation tax. On the government side, though, the plans are essentially for overall flat capital spending – i.e., taking into account inflation, a real terms cut. Government R&D spending falls in this overall envelope, so is likely to be under pressure.
Instead, the government is putting their hopes on the private sector stepping up to fill the gap, with a continuing emphasis on measures such as R&D tax credits to incentivise private sector R&D, and reforms to the pension system – including the “Long-term Investment for Technology and Science (LIFTS)” initiative – to bring more private money into the research system. The ambition for the UK to be a “Science Superpower” remains, but the government would prefer not to have to pay for it.
One significant set of announcements – on the “Advanced Manufacturing Plan” – marks the next phase in the Conservatives’ off-again, on-again relationship with industrial strategy. Commitments to support advanced manufacturing sectors such as aerospace, automobiles and pharmaceuticals, as well as the “Made Smarter” programme for innovation diffusion, are very welcome. The sums themselves perhaps shouldn’t be taken too seriously; the current government can’t bind its successor, whatever its colour, and anyway this money will have to be found within the overall spending envelope produced by the next Comprehensive Spending Review. But it is very welcome that, after the split-up of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, that the successor Department of Business and International Trade still maintains an interest in research and innovation in support of mainstream business sectors, rather than assuming that is all now to be left to its sister Department of Science, Innovation and Technology.
For all the efforts to create a tax-cutting headline, the economic backdrop for this Autumn statement is truly grim. There is no rosy scenario for the research community to benefit from; the question we face instead is how to fulfil the promises we have been making that R&D can indeed lead to productivity growth and economic benefit.