Policy update – April 2024

Ed Bridges, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Academy of Social Sciences 


On Wednesday 6 March, the Chancellor unveiled the UK Government’s spring budget.

The news headlines focused on the decision to cut employee national insurance rates from 10% to 8%, but there was less on research and development (R&D). It had been thought the Chancellor would confirm that the UK Government would reach its £20bn R&D spending target for 2024/5. In the event, his speech contained no reference to the aim, but the Treasury later indicated its confidence that it will hit the target, and it added that the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology’s (DSIT) capital budget will increase by £1.3bn (from £12.6bn in 2023/24 to £13.9bn in 2024/25).

New or confirmed initiatives and funding set out by the Chancellor included:

  • HM Revenue and Customs will establish an expert advisory panel to support the administration of R&D tax reliefs to “key sectors such as tech and life sciences”.
  • The UK Government has begun consulting on the design of a new fund for university spinouts and a pilot approach to supporting the establishment by universities of shared technology transfer offices.
  • Plans for the £50m Apprenticeship Growth Sector pilot to “boost funding for eligible providers delivering 13 high-value apprenticeship standards in advanced manufacturing, and green and life sciences sectors”.
  • £250m long-term investment for science and technology winners.
  • £250m Faraday Discovery Fellowships and £150m Green Future Fellowships will be funded through endowments to the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.
  • Up to £100m over the next five years for the UK’s national institute for AI and data science, the Alan Turing Institute.
  • £20m proof-of-concept fund for university spinouts and the pilot approach to supporting the establishment by universities of shared technology transfer offices.
  • £5m over the next three years in an agrifood launchpad in mid and north Wales.

Michelle Donelan, free speech and EDI

In normal political times, a Secretary of State requiring the taxpayer to pay £15,000 of damages after impugning the reputation of an academic would likely have been a resigning matter. In the current climate, there was relatively little analysis of Michelle Donelan’s climbdown after tweeting that a new member of Research England’s Expert Advisory Group on Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) had expressed sympathy for Hamas. Although she was forced to apologise in front of a Lords committee for the tweet, she remains in post.

For its part, UKRI’s own investigation “found no evidence in the public domain of support for a proscribed terrorist organisation or the sharing of extremist material and no grounds to remove any individual members of the Research England expert advisory group”. It also found no evidence of a breach in the expert advisory group’s terms of reference, and no failure to uphold the seven Nolan principles of public life.

Whilst the multifaceted nature of the story may not have made it something easily-packageable for news consumption, it will likely have significant long-term impacts, not all of which will be ameliorated by a General Election or change of government at Westminster. As an excellent WonkHE article explaining the row noted: “[The] important work of further EDI in research has been delayed. There are almost certainly academics that will now think twice before applying for public appointments. And there is a renewed bad blood between parts of the academic community, UKRI, and the [UK] government more generally.”

Other news in brief

  • Labour REF hints: At a Research Professional live event, shadow science minister Chi Onwurah stopped short of endorsing REF in its current form. Asked directly whether Labour had changed its 2019 manifesto position that REF should be scrapped, she said that research excellence needs to be maintained, but that she is concerned about some of the bureaucracy associated with REF. She also indicated that Labour’s plans for extending R&D budgets to ten years could include the budgets of UKRI and ARIA.
  • REF and open access consultation: A consultation has been launched about issues and impacts experienced with open access policies from the 2021 REF exercise. The consultation asks to what extent the original policy, and recent changes and developments to open access, should influence the requirements for REF 2029.