Whitehall needs cross-government robotics R&D approach – PAC

Government needs to make sure it does not lose its ‘edge as a research power’, MPs warn

Government must make better use of data to identify funding gaps  Credit: Fotolia

The civil service lacks strategic oversight of funding into areas such as robotics and combating climate change, according to the UK’s public spending watchdog.

A National Audit Office report published today found that nobody in government was coordinating research activity in certain “areas of national importance”, without which – Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier warned – the UK could lose its “edge as a research power” following Brexit.

The report called on UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – a new funding umbrella body due to start work in April 2018 – to work with the Department for Business, Innovation and Industrial Strategy and other departments to identify the research areas that need coordination.

Departments and research councils spent £8.75bn on research and development in 2015, and in 2016 government pledged to boost investment by £4.7bn by 2021.

The NAO, the UK’s public spending watchdog, warned that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU could alter the research funding landscape but government currently lacks data on which research programmes and facilities could be most affected.

It also found that departments lack coherent data on funding gaps, and that in many research areas there is a dearth of analysis of the impact of research and development.

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Amyas Morse, NAO head, said: “Some areas of research have well-established arrangements to support coordination and collaboration between public-sector funders. But some newer areas, including important emerging technologies and areas of national importance, need more effective leadership.”

The report found that leadership and coordination mechanisms were “well established” in the field of human health – which received £2.3bn of funding in 2015 – and “progressing” in energy, and animal and plant health.

But it revealed that Whitehall lacked a cross-government approach to research funding in climate, robotics and autonomous systems, and advanced materials.

“Despite consensus that it is needed, BEIS has not yet established government leadership and a strategy for investing in robotics,” said the report, adding that government has also struggled to establish stable leadership in advanced materials research and doesn’t yet have “a strategic core climate plan to direct research efforts”.

BEIS is responsible for the majority of government spending on science but around a third of funding comes from other departments. Some £3bn, for example, was spent on research in 2015-16 by the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health, the Department for International Development and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Hillier, a Labour MP, warned of the risks to research funding posed by Brexit unless departments step up their game.

“Research and development can deliver real benefits to society and improve lives,” she said. “As members of the EU, we have access to European projects, free movement of researchers, and billions of pounds of investment in the UK from the EU. There is a risk we could lose our edge as a research power as a result of Brexit.

“In order to avoid that we need strong leadership from government departments and UKRI. But to date, in important areas like robotics and climate change, that leadership has been sorely lacking.”

Morse added that the UK spends less as a proportion of GDP on research and development than many comparable nations.

He said: “Government needs a coherent view of the UK’s research strengths relative to other nations and analysis of funding in key areas of research, so that it can prioritise areas where activity is lagging behind and ensure the UK is investing in the right areas.”

The new UKRI, which is being set up with the intention of improving coordination of the research landscape, will bring together the research councils, Innovate UK and Research England. 


Sam Trendall

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