UK should double spend on development R&D

Global Britain, Global SolutionsThe UK should double the proportion of its international aid budget spent on research and development in order to solve the most pressing global challenges and support the Government’s Industrial Strategy, says Policy Exchange in Global Britain, Global Solutions, a new report with a Foreword by George Freeman MP. In 2015, British aid for R&D amounted to £419 million; over the medium term we should increase this both to help the poorest people in the world and to support the UK’s world leading scientists.

Growing drug resistance, increasing demand for clean energy and rising global food demand are among the challenges British science can help tackle. Yet R&D is relatively neglected by the rest of the international development community, presents high returns compared to other forms of intervention and is a British strength.

Policy Exchange worked with the Copenhagen Consensus Center to analyse the benefits of nearly 40 potential R&D projects which will help meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Among the most effective areas where British science could save and improve lives, and where we should invest our R&D money, are:

  • Developing affordable treatment for asthma.
  • Cheaper home monitoring and drug delivery for HIV/AIDs.
  • Developing a long acting reversible contraceptive.
  • Expanding the potential for irrigation in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Developing and promoting cleaner cookstoves

Announcing the report, Policy Exchange’s Director of Research Rupert Oldham-Reid said:

“We made the case for overseas aid and now Policy Exchange is making the case for spending that will help both the poorest people in the world and the British science base. Without further research, many of today’s technologies won’t be enough to meet future global challenges.

“Development R&D should be a central part both of our aid strategy and a broader innovation-led Industrial Strategy. Working with the Copenhagen Consensus Center, Policy Exchange has identified 40 interventions where British scientists could make a difference to millions of people, for example by developing more affordable treatments for asthma, supporting farmers with innovative irrigation techniques or launching cleaner ways of cooking.

“A post Brexit Britain has the potential to become a world leader in emerging technologies in agriculture, medicine, transport and GovTech – both helping our economy and tackling some of the world’s most important challenges.  Brexit may also give us an opportunity to be more innovative as the European Union’s over-reliance on the ‘precautionary principle’ has slowed progress in sectors like pharmaceuticals and GM crops, with significant spillover effects in the developing world.”

Bjorn Lomborg, President of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, said:  

“Copenhagen Consensus research at a global and national level has repeatedly shown that R&D delivers some of the most benefit for each pound spent. In global health, agriculture, gender-based violence, air pollution, and other areas, there are large opportunities for development innovation, where British R&D spending could help immensely. We are delighted to have worked with Policy Exchange to show how effectively R&D spending could help change millions of lives for the better.”

George Freeman MP, Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum, has written a Foreword for the report in which he says:

“At this historic moment while we prepare to leave the European Union, it is more important than ever that Britain sets out a bold, optimistic path for the future. Rather than turn in on ourselves, we should turn outwards, creating a more Global Britain.

“Public investment in development R&D can be a win/win – boosting global security and prosperity, while providing the seed capital to support a wider ecosystem of innovation at home. Many of these new technologies will not just help tackle the problems of the world’s poorest people, but solve our own challenges.”


As the Government’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact has argued, the current Global Challenges Research Fund provides insufficient strategic direction. In order to maximise returns from development R&D, we propose that UKRI should create a new institution – the UK Innovation Challenge Agency – to jointly manage the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the Global Challenges Research Fund. The new Innovation Challenge Agency would build the evidence base behind challenges, identify research gaps, sponsor replication, identify regulatory barriers to innovation and commission a new series of Advanced Market Commitments for finding solutions to global challenges.

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