Government on track to miss its own R&D target

Julian Harris
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Source: Wikimedia

Governments and targets, eh? They love ‘em, can’t get enough of ‘em – yet aren’t very good at actually hitting ‘em. A bit like me and deadlines.

Take research & development, more widely-known as R&D. Over five years ago the government decided that R&D investment should amount to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2014.

But today official figures have revealed that the percentage actually fell in 2012, the last recorded year – down to 1.72 per cent, from 1.77 per cent in 2011.

So, rather than edging towards the target, the UK appears to be moving in the opposite directly. The level of R&D spending is down from 1.79 per cent in 2009, and was over two per cent until the early 1990s.

And the (apparently futile) targets are not only coming from Westminster. Part of the European Union’s “long-term growth and jobs plan” is to hit R&D investment of three per cent of GDP by 2020.

The EU number is currently 2.06 per cent. But what’s most startling about the pan-European numbers is how far down the UK ranks – clearly below the EU average, in 12th place.

This morning’s news of a public-private partnership buying AstraZeneca’s research site in Cheshire – a deal that’s part of AZ’s creation of a “global R&D centre” in Cambridge – provides one boon for the UK, at least.

With over £4bn private sector investment in 2012, pharmaceuticals remains by far the biggest industry for R&D in this country. If the government wants to get anywhere near its targets, it’ll need the likes of AZ and rival GlaxoSmithKline to keep boosting their investments – a tough ask in the increasingly squeezed world of big pharma R&D.