Budget announcement brief on big plans for UK science and technology | News

The aim of the UK becoming a scientific superpower has now become a regular government refrain. Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, hoped to continue that ambition with several promises in his Budget, including research and development tax credits for cutting-edge small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), investment in new technology hubs around universities and more flexible medicines and devices regulator. He also pledged investment in carbon dioxide utilization and storage (CCUS), artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing, and backed nuclear power.

The package of research and development tax credits will be worth £1.8bn for qualifying companies working in areas such as life sciences or AI. SMEs will only be eligible if they spend 40% or more of their total spend on research and development, worth £27 for every £100 spent. However, those companies that spend less than 40% will receive £18.60 for every £100 spent; current tax relief is around 33% currently for SMEs.

Twelve new investment zones, centered around universities or research institutes, aim to “catalyze innovation”. Potential hosts include West Midlands, Greater Manchester, North East, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, East Midlands, Teesside and Liverpool with at least one each in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each area will receive £80m to support skills, infrastructure, tax relief and business rates.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will receive an extra £10 million over the next two years to help it speed up and simplify its approval processes. From 2024, it will be able to give “almost automatic alerts” to products that have already been approved by trusted regulators in other countries. It will also propose a new approval process for the most advanced drugs and devices.

Areas to receive funding increases include £20 billion for CCUS technologies, £900 million for exascale supercomputing and £2.5 billion for quantum computing. An AI sandbox will test faster approaches to help innovators get their products to market faster.

Following consultation, the government will classify nuclear power as an environmentally sustainable technology, giving it access to the same investment incentives as renewable energy. A new body – Great British Nuclear – will aim to provide a quarter of the UK’s electricity by 2050. A government-backed competition to demonstrate the viability of small modular reactors will help it decide whether to invest.

“Today’s Budget was more of a boost than a catalyst for science superpower status,” said Tanya Sheridan, head of policy and evidence at the Royal Society of Chemistry. “To become a true science superpower, the UK must also address the crisis in the recruitment and retention of science teachers and strengthen international partnerships by associating with Horizon Europe.”

Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, welcomed reforms to R&D tax credits and support for start-ups. But he noted that “sustained government investment in basic research and discovery is also needed to fuel the ‘innovations of tomorrow.’ Smith also called on the government to make association with Horizon Europe a priority.

Changes to the MHRA were also welcomed. However, Martin Landray, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Oxford, noted that if the UK is to be a leader in developing and evaluating innovative treatments, it needs to be able to run large and effective clinical trials. ‘[Since the pandemic] there is a regression to business as before – long delays, excessive complexity requirements – partly driven by the drain of experienced staff from the MHRA. The additional funding should certainly help. But money alone will not be enough. We need to move to a future where there is a greater exchange of ideas, experience and skills with the wider world beyond the concrete walls of the regulator.”

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