On Wednesday 25 November, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak travelled from Downing Street to the House of Commons to unveil the government’s spending plans for the next year.

The Spending Review, as this Commons statement and package of measures by the Chancellor is known, normally lays out spending for the next two or three years. However, given the unique context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has wrought significant damage to the UK’s economy, the government decided to do a single year version.

In his speech, the Chancellor began by “updating the House on our response to the coronavirus” and then laying out the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s sobering economic forecasts. Sunak stated that the forecast suggests the UK’s economy will contract by 11.3% this year, which is “the largest fall in output for more than 300 years”. Even with growth expected once lockdown restrictions ease in early December, the OBR expect the UK’s economic output to only return to pre-crisis levels by the final quarter of 2022.

Despite this dire economic situation, the Chancellor stated that the government has three priorities for 2021-2. First, to get the country through the Covid-19 crisis; second, to build stronger public services; and third to “deliver our record investment plans in infrastructure”.

Making the UK a ‘scientific superpower’

As part of the third and final priority, Sunak states the government is transforming the UK into a “scientific superpower” with almost £15bn in funding designated for research and development (R&D).

This funding aims to “increase the productivity and international competitiveness of its innovative firms” and includes support for clinical research to support the delivery of new drugs, treatments and vaccines.

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A more detailed Spending Review document also states that the government is clear in its ambition to “make the UK the most open research nation in the world”. Therefore, the government has committed to widening access to visas for researchers and scientists through a new Global Talent Route.

In a similar vein, the Chancellor has developed a multi-year settlement for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and National Academies, which will grow by more than £400m per year for the next three years. In addition, UKRI will receive £350m to build new capability and support the whole R&D ecosystem in the UK. The Spending Review also committed to providing at least £490m into Innovate UK’s core budget next year to support high-tech companies in the UK.

Further to this, as part of the Department of Health and Social Care’s budget, the Chancellor stated the department will be given £1.3bn to continue the work of the National Institute for Health Research and Genomics England in research into “better patient outcomes”, as well as to enabling them to support the wider life sciences sector.

This focus on the UK’s scientific prowess obviously occurs in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, during which UK labs have been at the forefront of vaccine research. The best example of this is AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford’s adenovirus vaccine, which recently achieved promising interim efficacy results, leading AstraZeneca to submit it for early approval to regulators.

Focusing on Covid-19 specifically, in the Spending Review, the UK’s Vaccines Taskforce in 2021-2 has also been granted an additional £733m to purchase successful vaccines and £128m to scale up R&D and vaccines manufacturing in the UK. The Spending Review also reiterated the UK’s interest in supporting global efforts to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, including through the World Health Organization’s COVAX facility and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

R&D responds

National Centre for Universities and Business head of policy and engagement Rosalind Lowe noted in a blog post: “In an important signal of intent, despite the pressures on public funding, R&D spending is to rise next year in real terms from just under £13bn in 2020/21, to £14.8bn in 2021/22.

“Whilst the uplift in funding is welcome, the Chancellor has also recognised the importance of long-term planning for research.”

Lowe continued: “Whilst the Spending Review places a clear focus on the importance of R&D, it’s unclear what the announcements will mean for innovation. Whilst the review says all the right things about the importance of innovation, there are few specific announcements related to it. This is worrying, as the government has a bigger role to play in the innovation system than it has traditionally held.”

The Association of Medical Research Charities CEO Aisling Burnand stated: “Today’s Spending Review announcements include a welcome increase in funding for research and innovation, and a clear recognition of the importance of building science capability and maintaining the research eco-system in the UK of which medical research charities are a significant and necessary part.

“Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on charity-funded research and the patients it benefits, it puts at risk future jobs and opportunities for a generation of researchers.

“We fervently hope the government’s commitment to R&D includes providing financial support to the charity research sector.

“We must have clarity on how this Spending Review will support charities in delivering the life-changing medical research patients urgently need.”

Taking a more positive view, Campaign for Science and Engineering assistant director Daniel Rathbone noted: “Given the current economic circumstances, I am really pleased to see the increased investment in R&D in 2021-22 announced by the Chancellor, keeping us on track to reach the government’s goal of £22bn invested in R&D by 2024-25.

“The government has also provided a multi-year settlement for UKRI core research budgets, with substantial increases over the next three years.

“This is really positive news because it will allow UKRI to make the most of this investment, protecting and growing the UK’s world class research base. I hope this will be followed by multi-year settlements for R&D across government, when the economic circumstances allow.”