Science spending, ethics and the general election

Will the next UK government increase spending on military R&D at the expense of renewable energy R&D? Dr Stuart Parkinson, SGR, investigates.

ResponsibleSci blog, 5 June 2017

In their general election manifestos, the Conservatives and Labour have set high targets for total investment in research and development in the UK (an amount which includes public, business, charity and overseas spending). The Conservatives have specified a long-term goal of 3% of GDP to be spent on R&D, with a shorter-term target to at least match the current OECD average of 2.4% within the next ten years. Labour have set a target of 3% of GDP to be spent on R&D by 2030. To put these targets into context, the most recent official data on UK science spending indicates it is approximately 1.7% of GDP. Some of the other parties have also indicated their support for more science spending.

While it is certainly positive to see such enthusiasm for science from the leading political parties, there is arguably a more important question to be asked – what will be the priorities for the expanded R&D spending? Here, I’m going to focus on two important areas that often get neglected in debates on science spending: military R&D and energy R&D. [1]

Let’s look at what the manifestos reveal about these areas.

Military R&D spending

For the Conservatives, one clear priority is a high military equipment budget, which currently totals £178 billion over the next 10 years. This budget includes military R&D. The latest (2014) figures available for the Ministry of Defence’s R&D budget show spending of £1.7 billion – an increase of 24% over 2011 levels (when austerity policies first kicked in). Government policies since 2014 indicate a continued spending rise, and the Conservative manifesto points to a number of areas where R&D spending is likely to be targeted. This would include the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system – this having been a major area of the MoD’s R&D budget for several years – coupled with armed drones and a range of other technologies which the UK would seek to export, despite numerous criticisms about the humanitarian impacts.

While Labour is also committed to the renewal of Trident in its manifesto, there are nevertheless signs of significant changes to other military funding priorities should they get their hands on power. A new Minister for Peace and Disarmament, an “end [to] support for unilateral aggressive wars of intervention” and commitments to higher humanitarian standards being applied to military exports all point to a less militaristic approach. Jeremy Corbyn has also indicated that even the Trident system would be subject to a review should Labour be elected. All this could lead to at least some R&D spending being shifted away from developing new weapons systems towards more work to understand the roots of conflict and to support peace-building – as SGR has argued in depth.

Energy R&D spending

Turning to energy, the first thing to note is the difference in scale between government R&D spending in this area and the military realm. According to the latest statistics published by the International Energy Agency, the UK government spent only £260 million on energy R&D in 2014. This is less than one-sixth of the amount for military R&D. And, in stark contrast to the military trend, energy R&D spending was less than in 2011. Within this total, the energy sector receiving the most government R&D funding was energy efficiency (£59m). That sector was narrowly ahead of renewables. Since 2014, we have seen the government cut back many of the funding streams for renewables and energy efficiency, and show new enthusiasm for small modular nuclear reactors and electric vehicles.

It is striking, then, that the Conservative manifesto does not even mention nuclear power. Instead, the main focus in the energy sector is on developing a large-scale shale gas industry – despite a recent warning from the Committee on Climate Change that this could undermine efforts to meet UK climate change targets. Also disturbing is the failure to mention the current goal of phasing out coal power by 2025. Carbon Capture and Storage technologies receives no mention either. The manifesto does, however, include a commitment to “maintain our position as a global leader in offshore wind” and emphasises the party’s continued support for the development of electric vehicles. It restates support for the Climate Change Act and its 2050 goal of reducing UK carbon emissions by 80% from 1990 levels – but emphasises minimising the cost of reaching the target.

It is difficult to see clearly how the Conservatives’ policies might translate into energy R&D spending. There would likely more support for the shale gas sector, offshore wind and electric vehicles, but for other sectors and technologies, the outlook is uncertain.

Labour’s manifesto contains much more ambitious plans on climate change. There is an aim to “ensure that 60 per cent of the UK’s energy comes from zero-carbon or renewable sources by 2030”. Subsequent detail has been released by the Labour Party indicating that the 60% target applies to electricity and heating (not transport) and that this target would include nuclear power. However, the commitment to new nuclear power stations appears vague. Labour would ban fracking on the grounds that it would undermine climate change targets. It also has a much more ambitious plan for installing home insulation, given the major cuts to programmes under the Conservatives.

These policies point towards more energy R&D spending overall, and more for a range of renewable energy, energy storage and ‘green gas’ technologies. The fossil fuel sector would very likely lose out, while funding for nuclear looks uncertain.

Other parties

I’ve focused my analysis on the two major parties as these are obviously the ones which will form (or lead, in the event of a coalition) the next government. However, certain policies of the smaller parties may also affect the outcome for science spending. For example, the Liberal Democrats have similar science spending targets to the two main parties. The Scottish National Party (SNP), Plaid Cymru and the Green Party all oppose Trident renewal, and favour much stricter arms export controls. All four argue for much greater ambition on climate change compared with the existing government. Meanwhile, UKIP continues to favour a highly militaristic approach to security issues, and dismisses the Paris Agreement because it believes, rather bizarrely, that it “has no basis in science.”


In 2010, the UK government spent 23 times as much on military R&D as it did on renewable energy R&D. [2] The latest (2014) spending figures indicate that this ratio has jumped to 30. The policies outlined in the Conservative manifesto all point to this ratio increasing even further. The manifestos of Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens all point towards the ratio moving in the opposite direction.

Voters will choose their preferred parties on 8th June.

Dr Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility.

NB This article was amended after publication to remove ‘demonstration’ spending which had been erroneously included within the energy R&D figures.


[1] I explicitly discuss only public R&D spending as this is what the government has most control over – and it provides signals to businesses, charities and overseas sources on their spending.

[2] Military R&D spending figures are sourced from the Office of National Statistics. Energy R&D statistics are sourced from the International Energy Agency.