The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has been criticised by MPs for its lack of insight on how to spend £7bn in funding earmarked to boost weak research and development in UK firms.
MPs on parliament’s influential Public Accounts Committee said that while research was “well-coordinated” in the health sector, BEIS had “not done enough to identify where other areas of research are lagging behind”.
The government has set a target increasing total UK investment in research from 1.68% of gross domestic product in 2015 to 2.4% of GDP in 2027, and has committed to spend the additional £7bn on research over five years as a step towards the long-term target. The European average for R&D funding is 2.03% of GDP, according to the select committee report.
But the committee said that the government lacked “an ambitious plan” for how to achieve the 2027 aspiration and may need to spend even more on hitting the target without greater investment by the private sector.
BEIS and its seven research councils are responsible for the lion’s share of publicly-funded research. But other government departments, including the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs account for around a third of public expenditure on research.
The committee’s report, Research and development funding across government, said that without effective leadership in emerging technologies such as robotics, the nation would not develop the skills it needed for the future, jeopardising productivity and economic growth at the same time the UK was leaving the European Union.
MPs also said the government needed to make sure it protected government intellectual property rights as part of its investment programme.
Committee chair Meg Hillier said it was “concerning” that after making ambitious promises on research investment for the coming decade the government did not know how its commitments would be met nor at what cost to taxpayers.
“Research and development has a critical role to play in the economic prosperity of the UK,” she said.
“It is vital the government delivers value for every pound of public money invested and has a robust plan to secure necessary levels of funding from other sources.
“There is work to do on both fronts, complicated by the uncertainty over funding and skills created by Brexit.
“Government also needs a better grasp of the detail. If it is to direct resources wisely it must understand which areas of research have skills gaps, which need stronger leadership and exactly who is funding what.”
Hillier said the committee’s work had highlighted that there was a clear role for the new umbrella body UK Research & Innovation, which came into existence at the beginning of this month, and said it should work with central government to identify areas of weakness or overlap so that appropriate action can be taken “as a priority".
A BEIS spokeswoman said the £7bn investment was targeted to take place by 2022 and was the largest increase in public research-and-development funding for 40 years.
“Through our modern Industrial Strategy, Grand Challenges and Sector Deals we will target this record investment into the right areas like AI and the future of mobility,” she said.
“This will ensure we put the UK at the forefront of the industries of the future, improve people’s lives and the country’s productivity.”