British industry cuts research to the bone. . .


By WILLIAM BOWN Industry’s investment in the future – the money it spends on research and development – has fallen to its lowest level since the mid-1980s as recession and defence cuts take their toll on Britain’s high-technology companies. Figures published by the Central Statistical Office this week show that British firms slashed almost a billion pounds from their research budgets in 1991. Spending on industrial R&D fell by £800 million to £7.8 billion in 1991, a drop of 10 per cent since 1990 after allowing for inflation. In real terms spending was the lowest since 1985. Labour’s science spokesman, Lewis Moonie, said the figures exposed the failure of the government’s policies on R&D. ‘While defence expenditure is falling, the money is not being switched into other areas,’ said Moonie. ‘The figures for 1992 – when the recession really began to bite – will be even worse.’ While civilian research spending fell by 7 per cent to £6.3 billion in 1991, defence spending plummeted. In a single year, defence contractors have cut a quarter of their R&D budgets, leaving just £1.5 billion. The government acknowledges a worrying decline in R&D since 1985. ‘The cuts in defence R&D expenditure were anticipated, but the decline in civil R&D is worrying,’ said William Waldegrave, the minister for science. ‘One has to take account of the recession that affected all parts of industry in 1991, but we shall be exploring means of encouraging industry to take a long-term view of the need for R&D investment.’ Brian Lowe, head of the Defence Manufacturers Association, said cutbacks in R&D were inevitable. ‘With the total decline in defence expenditure, R&D is suffering as well,’ he said. The number of staff working on defence R&D fell from 38 000 in 1989 to 26 000 in 1991. Nevertheless, Lowe emphasised that research remained vital to defence contractors. ‘We have to concentrate on the high-tech end of the market because our labour costs are not as low as in the Far East.’ Almost every area of research has been touched by the recession. Spending by chemicals and pharmaceuticals companies fell by 10 per cent in 1991, while electronics research declined by 12 per cent. Only research on motor vehicles has held its own, prompted by the recent influx of Japanese car companies. The strategy adopted by ICI, Britain’s biggest research spender, has been followed by other large high-technology companies. ICI has trimmed its overall budgets and sold off some businesses during the recession, and this has caused its spending on research to fall slightly in the past two years. Nevertheless, Denys Henderson, chairman of ICI, said that research remains ‘the mainspring for future profitable growth’. Research spending on some of the company’s key businesses, such as pharmaceuticals and seeds,
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