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UK science funding protected from cuts

26 Nov 2015 Michael Banks
Holding the purse strings: UK to maintain science funding

The UK chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, has announced that the country’s science budget will be protected in real terms until 2020, dispelling fears among many scientists that it would be cut. The £4.7bn per-year budget will now rise in line with inflation, to “ensure the UK remains a world leader in science and research”. The chancellor also re-affirmed that the UK will invest a further £6.9bn over the course of the parliament, which runs until 2020, in capital spending on science.

The government claims that by inflation-proofing the budget, the total spend on science will be more than £500m higher by 2020 than in 2015. “In the modern world, one of the best ways you can back business is by backing science,” Osborne noted during his budget speech to parliament. He also announced that to “further support innovation”, the government will dedicate 1.2% of its defence budget to science and technology, and invest more than £1.3bn by 2020 to attract new teachers, “particularly into science, technology, engineering and mathematics”.

Researchers and senior figures within the UK science community have welcomed the statement. “Across government there are programmes facing significant cuts, and against this background we acknowledge the value the government has placed on research with this settlement,” says Philip Nelson, chair of the Research Councils UK (RCUK) executive group – the umbrella organization for the UK’s seven research councils. “It means that the UK’s research base will be able to maintain its world-class research outputs, continue to partner with and attract industry, maintain its flow of trained researchers into the economy and society, and continue to inspire the next generation.”

In the modern world, one of the best ways you can back business is by backing science George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer

Paul Hardaker, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, says that while this budget boost will help UK science, “we still need to be mindful of how this compares with higher investment by international competitors”. Over the past five years, the UK’s flat science budget has been eroded in real terms by inflation, whereas other countries, notably Germany, have been increasing spending on science. “To grow our economy and create jobs, the UK must be competitive, and that means investing in science and bringing that science to market,” says Hardaker. “[The budget] shows that this government is committed to investing in science, and ensuring that we maximize the potential economic and societal gains from doing so in the future.”

Tucking in

Yet while the protection of science is good news for researchers who had feared deep cuts, the devil will be in the detail. As part of the science budget, the government announced a new £1.5bn “Global Challenges Research Fund” over the next five years that will “ensure UK science takes a leading role in addressing the problems faced by developing countries”. It is not yet clear how this will affect the science budget and if it is a case of “tucking in”, in which the same pot of money is made to fund additional programmes.

“At face value, the restoration of the link between the science budget and inflation is a great relief, having been eroded in real terms by 10% over the last five years,” says astronomer Paul Crowther of the University of Sheffield. “However, as usual we’ll have to wait for further details, since other items may be tucked into the overall budget, or higher funds may be directed to specific programmes already in the science budget, such as the UK Space Agency.” Crowther adds that researchers will now be eagerly awaiting details of how the cash will funnel down into the seven research-council budgets, which is likely to be known in January.

Osborne’s budget statement also announced that the government will implement the recommendations of a recent review carried out by the Nobel laureate Paul Nurse, who is president of the Royal Society. Nurse called for a new body – Research UK – that would replace RCUK. If created, Research UK would manage councils’ research funds and would be at “arm’s length” from the government. The statement also says that the government will “look to” integrate Innovate UK – the UK’s innovation agency – into Research UK, as well as “take forward” a review of the Research Excellence Framework, which assesses the quality of research in UK higher-education institutions.

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