A revolution is needed at the UK general election next month to put science at the heart of government and policymaking. The current political discourse in the United Kingdom is dominated by debates about the quality of public services, strategies to boost economic growth and concerns related to the environment. Politicians care about these issues, but they do not always realize that science has an important role in delivering effective solutions.

Having co-authored a review of the United Kingdom’s research landscape in 2023 and on the basis of my own experience as director of the Francis Crick Institute, a biomedical research centre in London, I have come to the conclusion that although the country’s scientific endeavour is still generally of a high quality, it is becoming increasingly fragile.

Public investment in UK science has languished. The review estimated that in 2019 the UK government spent about 0.46% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on funding research and development (R&D), putting it 27th on a list of the 36 wealthy nations that then constituted the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (see go.nature.com/4cjezj2). That’s below most other leading research-driven economies, such as the United States, Germany and South Korea, which invest 0.66–0.96% of their GDP. Moreover, R&D done by UK government institutions, such as the Met Office and the National Physical Laboratory, was funded at a mere 0.12% of GDP — half the OECD average.

The current government has said it aspires for the United Kingdom to be a ‘science superpower’, but there are no concrete proposals in place to achieve this vision. The incoming government, which will assume office in July, needs to put forward a credible ten-year plan for supporting science. Addressing the investment deficit will be difficult in the short term, given the country’s stagnant economy, but a stable R&D policy environment that aims to gradually increase investment levels over the next few years is an essential first step. Research spending is a long-term investment in a nation’s future, unlike short-term tax cuts. So, a justifiable case can be made to fund some of this investment through borrowed money.

The mechanisms that govern how R&D funds get spent also need reform, beginning with a reappraisal of the current focus on merely paying direct research costs. Under the guise of improving efficiency and lowering administrative costs, government grants do not fully cover a variety of essential research-related expenses, such as the provisioning of well-equipped laboratories, access to well-maintained databases and high-quality technical and administrative support. A more complete ‘end-to-end’ funding model that reflects the full cost of doing research will improve the quality of scientific output.

These issues are of particular concern to UK universities, many of which are underfunded and cannot provide high-quality support services. At the Crick, some core funding has been directed at institute-wide end-to-end support, centralizing crucial legal, administrative and other services. Moreover, all scientists can use its scientific platforms, such as genome-sequencing equipment and electron microscopes, providing equal access to all research groups, including those headed by early-career group leaders.

Government funding streams also come with peculiar forms of bureaucracy. For instance, during a government-led quality-assurance review to determine its future level of funding, the Crick had to submit more than 5,000 pages of documentation. The government also places restrictions on the salaries paid to scientists.

Furthermore, UK public-sector research organizations have declined in number and immigration policies are affecting the country’s ability to attract scientific talent.

Between 1985 and 2020, research done at universities has grown to around 80% of the United Kingdom’s non-business R&D (compared with 45–60% in other countries). By contrast, research performed by other public-sector research organizations has shrunk by two-thirds over the same time. This is a cause for concern because such institutions are uniquely positioned to support government priorities and missions — for example, by spearheading research on dementia and infectious diseases, plant breeding, fire and explosives safety and particle accelerators. Given the current state of these organizations, it is doubtful that the UK government has the necessary scientific capability to run the country properly.

By offering a platform for high-quality discovery research, well-functioning public R&D institutions can attract accomplished scientists from all over the world.

Therefore, strengthening R&D institutions must go hand in hand with more-sophisticated discussions about immigration. The nation should not only encourage and provide the best training for home-grown talent, but also attract global talent at all career stages. Complex and expensive immigration procedures and prohibitive visa costs, combined with the current tone of political discussion, will only end up driving away rare talent, to the detriment of UK research and business.

The priorities laid out here are all deliverable with sufficient political will. If making the country a ‘science superpower’ is crucial to securing its future prosperity, then these issues must be a part of the political debate.