R&D spending in the UK. Including analysis of R&D by region and industry, and international comparisons of R&D.

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Research and development (R&D) refers to creative and systematic work undertaken to increase the stock of knowledge.

Total R&D

In the UK in 2018, total expenditure on R&D was £37.1 billion, £558 per head, or the equivalent of 1.7% of GDP.

R&D investment has risen steadily over the past few decades, from £18.5 billion in 1981 to the current total of £37.1 billion (in 2018 prices). This is a real terms increase of 101%.

But as a proportion of GDP, R&D expenditure has fallen over this period (it was the equivalent of 2.0% of GDP in 1981).

The Government has a target for total R&D investment to reach 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

Sectors funding R&D

The business sector is the largest funder of R&D performed in the UK. In 2018, it funded £20.3 billion (55%) of R&D.

Public funding for R&D (government, research councils and the devolved higher education funding councils) was £9.6 billion in 2018, 26% of the total.

Sectors performing R&D

The business sector performed R&D worth £25.0 billion in 2017, 68% of the total.

The public sector (including research councils and devolved higher education) performed £11.2 billion of R&D, 30% of the total.

R&D by region

The latest full regional data for R&D performance is for 2017; data available for 2018 does not include the higher education sector.

In 2017, R&D performed in the South East of England in 2017 £6.7 billion, 19% of the total. R&D performed in the South East, the East of England and London accounted for 52% of all UK R&D. Per head, R&D expenditure in the East of England is the highest: £962 per head. The figure for the whole UK is £527 per head. In Wales, per head R&D expenditure is £238.

R&D by sector

In 2018, the pharmaceutical industry performed the most R&D in the UK – worth £4.5 billion. The automotive manufacturing industry performed the second most R&D, worth £3.8 billion.

In 2018, the miscellaneous business services and technical testing sector employed the most the most people in R&D related roles: 27,000. The pharmaceuticals sector had the second highest R&D related employment: 25,000.

International comparisons

The UK R&D expenditure of 1.7% of GDP is below the OECD average of 2.4%.

R&D expenditure in Germany is the equivalent of 3.1% of GDP, in the US it is 2.8% and in France it is 2.2%.

Top R&D performing companies

The world’s top three R&D performing companies are Alphabet (from the USA), which performed £16.0 billion of R&D in 2019, followed by Samsung (from South Korea), which performed £13.0 billion and Microsoft (from the USA), which performed £12.9 billion.

  • Commons Research Briefing SN04223
  • Authors: Chris Rhodes, Georgina Hutton, Matthew Ward
  • Topics: Sciences

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