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02 December 2019

David Willetts outlines proposals to transform research and development in Britain

The former Universities Minister sets out his plan for increased R&D spending

Proposals to boost innovation

In a new report for the Policy Institute at King’s College London, David Willetts welcomes the commitment across the main political parties to increase total national spending on R&D from 1.7 per cent of GDP to at least 2.4 per cent and sets out how this could be achieved.

He argues that universities should have the full economic cost of their research funded, rather than the current 80 per cent, and that there is too much focus on counting university spin-outs, which should not be a measure of universities’ contribution to innovation. 

As the increase in R&D spend includes private as well as public spending, it is important for public initiatives to promote private spending, Willetts says. The extra spending should also go on initiatives outside universities, notably successful but underfunded Innovate UK programmes such as SMART awards for innovative companies.

The report is the first assessment of the Conservative party’s proposal for a British version of DARPA in the US. Willetts shows that DARPA has promoted America’s lead in key technologies and argues it is important that the UK identifies and supports the “critical technologies” referred to in the Conservative manifesto to complement the recent focus on missions and challenges.

David Willetts’ 12-point plan

University research

  • Fund the full economic cost of a research project instead of the current 80 per cent.
  • Announce that counting start-ups is no measure of a university’s performance in promoting innovation.
  • Discourage universities from going for such big stakes in companies created by their academic staff, which is currently a barrier to private investment.
  • Remove the requirement that all eligible researchers should be submitted to the Research Excellence Framework – to boost practical applied research and cut bureaucracy in academies.

Non-university research 

  • Create a pot of public funding to support catapults, technology parks and other non-university institutes.
  • Restore greater freedoms to public research establishments.

Key technologies

  • Immediately launch government investment in key technologies.
  • Create a new technology strategy based on expert horizon scanning for new technologies.


  • Boost Innovate UK’s SMART awards budget by around £300 million a year.
  • Better align bodies such as Innovate UK, the British Business Bank and Business Growth Fund so that new technology companies can access funding schemes more easily.
  • Insist that 1 per cent of public procurement budgets for large infrastructure programmes is used to promote innovation.
  • Simplify Research Council grant processes and speed up how UKRI investments are reviewed and approved.

David Willetts, Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, said:

“These proposals are intended to promote one of Britain’s greatest single intellectual and cultural achievements – the vigour and creativeness of our research community. From producing Nobel Prize winners to supporting technicians maintaining and developing the kit which makes their discoveries possible, excellent R&D underpins Britain’s distinctive and wide-ranging research base. But we need to ensure extra funding is well-spent, enabling us to harness research to create wealth and prosperity to boost our living standards in the future. This 12-point plan shows how we could achieve that.”

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