SET Statistics: progress since 1986?

Without fanfare the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) published this year’s Science, Engineering and Technology Statistics. I am a big fan of SET stats as they give us the evidence on whether or not the government is making progress in science and engineering across a number of areas. There is too much data (7 sections covering expenditure on R&D, international comparisons and SET personnel) to do a comprehensive analysis so I will look at what changes have occured to research funding between 1986 (the year CaSE was founded as Save British Science) and 2007.

The overall figures are not good. In real terms net government expenditure was £9,371 million in 1986/87 and £9,258 in 2007/08 (see table 3.2). Although there has not been a real change in the overall level of funding there has been a huge shift in funding from departmental R&D spending to the research base (universities and institutes) and from defence to civil research. In 1986/87 the research base made up 28.5% of funding, civil departments 23.1% and defence 48.4%. In 2007/08 it was research base 62.6%, civil departments 14.1% and defence 23.3% of R&D funding (see table 3.3).

There has been a change in who is funding R&D in the UK as well – relatively less government investment in R&D and more investment from research charities and foreign companies. In 1986 – 40% was funded by government, 1% by higher education, 48% by business, 3% by private non-profit and 9% from abroad. In 2007 – 30% by government, 1% by higher education, 47% by business, 5% by private non-profit and 17% from abroad (see table 6.3).

The UK has dropped down the G7 in % of GDP spent on R&D. In 1986 the UK as a whole spent 2.17% of GDP on R&D. That put us in the middle of the G7, behind the USA (2.72%), Germany (2.63%) and Japan (2.55%), but ahead of France (2.15%), Canada (1.46%), Italy (1.11%). In 2007 the UK as a whole spent 1.81% of GDP on R&D, putting us behind the rest of G7 except for Italy (see table 7.3) . We were closer to the government’s target of 2.5% of GDP spent on R&D in 1986 than we are now.

These figures cover only two points in time - 1986 and 2007. Do look at the stats for the intervening years as some have gone lower and are now heading up. However, the comparison between ’86 and ’07 does reflect a few key trends. The first is that the research base is now the dominant player in terms of government funded R&D. The second is that foreign investment in UK R&D has grown substantially. The third is that the UK has a less R&D intensive economy now than it did in 1986.

Figure 1. Government expenditure on R&D in real terms, 1986-2008 (base year 2006-07) £ millions.

Figure 1. Government expenditure on R&D in real terms, 1986-2008 (base year 2006-07) £ millions.

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