The goal of making the UK a science superpower has now become a regular government refrain. Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, hoped to further this ambition with several pledges in his budget including R&D tax credits for cutting-edge small- or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), investment in new tech hubs around universities and a more agile drugs and devices regulator. He also pledged investment in carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS), artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing, and backed nuclear energy.

The package of R&D tax credits will be worth £1.8 billion for qualifying companies working in areas such as life sciences or AI. SMEs will only be eligible if they spend 40% or more of their total expenditure on R&D, worth £27 for every £100 spent. However, those companies spending less than 40% will receive £18.60 for every £100 spent; the current tax relief is around 33% at present for SMEs.

Twelve new investment zones centred around universities or research institutes aim to ‘catalyse innovation’. Potential hosts include the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, the North East, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, East Midlands, Teesside and Liverpool with at least one in each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well. Each zone will receive £80 million for support with skills, infrastructure, tax relief and business rates.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will receive an extra £10 million over the next two years to help it speed up and simplify its approval processes. From 2024, it will be able to give ‘near-automatic signoffs’ for products already approved by trusted regulators in other countries. It will also offer a new approval process for the most cutting-edge medicines and devices.

Areas to receive funding boosts include £20 billion for CCUS technologies, £900 million for an exascale supercomputer and £2.5 billion for quantum computing. An AI ‘sandbox’ will trial faster approaches to help innovators get products to market faster.

Subject to consultation, the government will classify nuclear power as an environmentally sustainable technology, giving it access to the same investment incentives as renewable energy. A new body – Great British Nuclear – will aim to provide one-quarter of the UK’s electricity by 2050. A government-backed competition to demonstrate the viability of small modular reactors will help it decide whether to invest.

‘Today’s budget was more of a nudge than a catalyst to science superpower status,’ said Tanya Sheridan, head of policy and evidence at the Royal Society of Chemistry. ‘To become a real science superpower, the UK also needs to tackle the science teacher recruitment and retention crisis, and boost international partnerships through association to Horizon Europe.’

Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, welcomed the reforms to R&D tax credits and support for fledgling companies. But he noted that ‘sustained government investment is also needed in basic research and discovery to fuel ‘the innovations of tomorrow’. Smith also called on the government to make associating to Horizon Europe a priority.

Changes to the MHRA have also been welcomed. However, Martin Landray, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Oxford, noted that if the UK wants to be a leader in developing and evaluating innovative treatments, it must be able to run large and efficient clinical trials. ‘[Since the pandemic] there has been a regression to business as before – lengthy delays, excessive demands for complexity – in part driven by an exodus of experienced staff from MHRA. The additional funding should certainly help. But money alone will not be enough. We need to move to a future where there is greater exchange of ideas, experience and skills with the wider world beyond the concrete walls of the regulator.’