Britain must Brexit-proof its economy by ramping up spending on research and development or risk being left behind in the global race to deliver game-changing innovations in areas such as space tourism and robotics, the country’s leading business group has said.
The CBI lobby group will launch a campaign on Monday to urge the government to adopt an ambitious new target for R&D spending of 3% of GDP, compared with the current level of 1.7%.
Adopting a target for R&D spending would send an important signal to foreign investors and academics that the UK can remain a hub for innovation and scientific collaboration in a post-Brexit world, the CBI will say.
“Much of what we need to deliver a world-class innovation ecosystem is already in place. The UK has first-rate universities, cutting-edge businesses and attracts talent from across the globe.
“But our spending on R&D has stagnated at just 1.7% of GDP, with both public and private sectors under-investing,” the report says.
It speaks of a growing challenge from Asian economies and notably China, which increased its share of global R&D spending from 2.5% in 1996 to 19.6% in 2013. China also outranked the UK when measuring its R&D spending as a percentage of GDP, which stood at 2.0% in 2014.
The CBI has not set a date for its 3% target to be reached, but believes it is achievable by 2025.
“Now is the moment for the UK to up its game and try and move the needle in terms of where we are on innovation,” said Felicity Burch, the CBI’s head of digital and innovation.
“We had the Brexit vote last year and article 50 fast approaching, we actually need to think quite seriously about what our economy looks like and how we compete globally now.
“Then on the other side, we actually have a real opportunity in terms of the new industrial strategy … It’s really clear the government is taking innovation seriously but what we need is a real vision about the outcomes we want to achieve with that strategy.”
Having a measurable target will help focus government and business attention on the need to increase spending, the CBI says, citing evidence from other bodies, including the House of Commons science and technology committee, arguing for 3% as a level proven to boost growth and jobs.
The Europe 2020 agenda also include a target of 3% of the EU’s gross domestic product (GDP) to be invested in R&D.
“It’s not arbitrary. It’s challenging,” said Burch. “Against UK progress it would be years and years away, but if you look at how much other EU countries have raised their R&D expenditure over the last year as a percentage of GDP, if the UK could step up and replicate what is happening on the EU average we would hit it before 2025.”
The UK’s spending on R&D has stagnated for years, fluctuating between 1.53% and 1.68% of GDP since 1998.
On the latest official figures, published last week, R&D spending was £31.6bn in 2015, a rise of £1.2bn on 2014, largely driven by an increase in private sector investment.
Given the economy also grew in that time, there was barely any rise in spending as a percentage of GDP. It was 1.68% of GDP in 2015, compared with 1.66% in 2014.
The EU-wide level was estimated at 2.03% for 2015 while Sweden, Austria and Denmark all surpassed 3% with Finland and Germany not far behind.
The CBI said the onus was on both government and industry to put more money into developing new products.
Its report says: “Gene editing, space tourism, self-driving vehicles, robotic limbs, floating farms, London to Sydney in four hours. Game-changing innovations like these will shape the course of the next decade.
“The current pace of change in technology is unrivalled and individuals, companies, and governments are under pressure to keep up.”
Brexit-proof the UK economy with more R&D, say employers – The Guardian