UPDATED: Details of Tight U.K. Science Budget Emerge

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John Travis
2010-12-20 15:59
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When the new U.K. government in October released its Comprehensive Spending Review, scientists breathed a sigh of relief, and some even celebrated, at the promise that science would maintain its current funding for the next 4 years. While inflation will eat away at budgets and there's little money for new capitol projects, other parts of the government were hit with massive cuts. Today, researchers will begin to see if their relief was premature as they study the detailed allocations of the science budget that have just been released.

Some are already arguing that this is not a time to celebrate. "It looks like we could be returning to the dark days of the 1980s and early 1990s, when researchers were forced to work in laboratories and facilities that were starved of investment," says Bob Ward of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Science Insider below highlights key budget decisions and budget documents and the various reactions issued so far; we expect to update it over the holidays, as Britain's science funding future becomes clearer.

U.K. BUDGET HEADLINES

  • Capital investment cut by around 40%
  • Normal CERN and European Southern Observatory subscription maintained
  • The Diamond Light Source will get new beamlines
  • Reduced operations for ISIS pulsed neutron and muon source and the Central Laser Facility
  • Reduced contributions to and use of European Synchrotron Radiation Facility
  • Continued funding for redevelopment of BBSRC's Institute for Animal Health's Pirbright Laboratory
  • Medical Research Council allowed to keep all royalties from patented drugs developed by scientists it funded (Times article, subscription required)

BUDGET DOCUMENTS

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

Research Councils UK

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

Economic & Social Research Council

Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council

Medical Research Council

Natural Environment Research Council

Science & Technology Facilities Council

BUDGET ALLOCATIONS REACTIONS:

Imran Khan, Director of the Campaign for Science & Engineering:

The allocations confirm that UK science and engineering faces four very tricky years ahead. While some of our international competitors are looking to the future, British research will be busy retrenching. It is encouraging that the Government has tried to protect research where it can. It looks like capital spending on research will be hit less hard than capital spending across BIS - it's down 41%, rather than the expected 44%. But this still means a dramatic reduction in investment in equipment and facilities, putting a big dent in Britain's scientific credentials.

What's especially worrying is that a lot of this 'capital spending' is actually maintenance and other long-term commitments, which can't simply be stopped - the money will have to come from other sources, including research grants, instead. Cutting back on capital spending may have its own costs - the opportunity costs of not fully exploiting past investments in high-tech infrastructure, and the very real costs of redundancy payments to staff now deemed surplus to requirements.

There are going to be a lot of very difficult decisions which have to be made over the coming years. But it's going to be crucial that UK science shows how socially and economically valuable it is, so that we can make the case for research spending in future.

Bob Ward, Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science:

Today's announcement confirms that the Government is planning to slash capital expenditure for research. Applying the Office of Budget Responsibility's forecasts for inflation to the new figures, the money invested in infrastructure in 2014-15 will be about 46% less than this year. It looks like we could be returning to the dark days of the 1980s and early 1990s when researchers were forced to work in laboratories and facilities that were starved of investment. World class researchers need world class facilities and infrastructure if they are to provide the advances in knowledge and innovation that drive our economy. In October the Government indicated that it would freeze £4.6 billion of the annual Science Budget and support for university research at its 2010-11 level for the period covered by the Comprehensive Spending Review. However, the figures published today show that this headline obscured plans to almost halve the investment in capital. When this is taken into account, Government spending on research in 2014-15 will be about 14 per cent lower in real terms than in 2010-11.

Some leaders within the scientific community were quick to praise the Government after the Spending Review for 'freezing' research funding. But we have now discovered that the UK's international competitiveness and its prospects for long-term economic growth will be undermined by the Government's plans to slash the investment in the laboratories and facilities required by world-class researchers. The UK is already lagging behind its international competitors in terms of the proportion of its national wealth that it invests in research and development. If the Government is serious about laying the foundations for sustainable long-term economic growth, it should be investing more in research and development. If the Government seeks to ring-fence research funding for science subjects, it will mean even more damaging cuts in other disciplines, such as economics and social sciences. It would be ironic if the Government, in the wake of such a massive economic crisis, decided to cut its investment in the areas of research that might help us to avoid facing such problems again. We will not be able to deal with the major challenges of the future, such as climate change, through science alone, and we must invest in other strategically important areas of research, including economics.

Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust:

This settlement is a good outcome for research in difficult times. We particularly welcome the increased allocation to the Medical Research Council, which will complement the increase in the Department of Health's research budget, and ensure that the UK can maintain a strong and vibrant life sciences sector. We look forward to HEFCE's forthcoming announcements for confirmation of the Government's ongoing commitment to the Charity Research Support Fund.

John Savill, Chief Executive, Medical Research Council:

By protecting MRC resource expenditure in real terms, it's clear that the Government has recognised the evidence showing investment in medical research reaps health and wealth rewards. Nevertheless the MRC must now deliver the best possible return on investment, sharpening our focus on quality, strategic partnerships and efficiency, in order to achieve the greatest possible impact. We will not withdraw from funding of areas within our remit, so competition for support will remain fierce, but we will continue to do our best to encourage and support early career researchers.

Michael Sterling, Chair of the Science & Technology Facilities Council:

Our settlement is extremely welcome and recognises government's strong support for our science and technology, although the next four years is not without challenges. STFC and its research communities are well positioned to deal with these - we carried out a thorough prioritisation of our programme in 2009 which focused support on our highest priority activities. This process was a difficult one, involving significant reductions in research support for some of STFC's science areas, but the programme and priorities established a year ago form a strong basis for the next four years and are carried forward in this Delivery Plan.

Alan Thorpe, Chair of Research Councils UK:

This allocation as part of the 2010 spending review confirms the value that Government has placed on research investment for the UK. In the context of a very difficult public sector settlement, it is very encouraging that the allocations to the Research Councils have fared so well. Of course, to manage within our budgets there will need to be rigorous prioritisation by Councils and some difficult strategic decisions will need to be made. The cut to the capital budgets of the Research Councils will present particularly significant challenges going forwards, but we have a good foundation, and excellence with impact will remain at the core of what we do. Research Councils UK also welcomes the restatement of the Haldane Principle. It underlines the continuing independence of the Research Councils in making the strategic decisions for the investment of the Science and Research budget, ensuring that the key challenges facing society are addressed whilst maintaining national capability in vital areas.

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council:

Given the current pressure on public finances in the UK, the allocation is an excellent outcome for bioscience. I believe that our allocation of almost £1.5Bn over the next four years reflects the government's recognition of the role of bioscience in tackling major challenges, such as food security and sustainable technologies, and in driving economic recovery in the new knowledge based bio-economy. The allocation represents a small, 3% fall in our programme budget to £351M in 2014/15 compared to our baseline of £362M in 2010/11. As with other Research Councils our capital budget has had to reduce significantly, in BBSRC's case from a baseline of £60M in 2010/11 to £30M in 2014/15. We will need to make further efficiency savings, and to work with the research community to ensure that we extract maximum value from our investments….

I am pleased that the redevelopment of the Pirbright Laboratory of BBSRC's Institute for Animal Health is proceeding with a further £37M of funding already announced from the Large Facilities Capital Fund (LFCF). The reduction in our other capital funding will be particularly challenging. To help address this reduction in capital we will widen access to key national facilities and infrastructure, and we remain committed to investment in new tools and techniques to underpin modern bioscience which we see as key to delivering our priority science areas. We will be announcing more details following the BBSRC Council meeting in February 2011.

Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society:

Supporting science is crucial to the strength of our economic recovery, our education system and to the solution of global problems - the government has recognised that in protecting much of the science budget. We must not forget, however, that the axe has fallen in the 'capital' side of the budget. Allowing some of our labs and other facilities to go without further investment is only a short term solution and cannot be considered as a sensible long term strategy. Once public finances improve we will need to be quick to reinvest in the places where our scientists work and in the facilities they need to do that work.

Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of universities:

We recognise that during this period of ongoing economic stringency in public expenditure there are elements in today’s announcements that represent a comparatively welcome outcome for our members.  But no-one should be in any doubt of the tough reality that very challenging times lie ahead for our leading universities and some very difficult decisions will need to be made if they are to maintain the world-class quality of their teaching and research... We welcome the Government’s recognition that science and research are crucial to the UK’s economic and growth performance, and the protection of the science budget in cash terms in the spending review. However, it should not be forgotten that our competitors are injecting vast amounts of cash into their universities, and our leading universities are already under-resourced in comparison with our international competitors.QR for universities in England has decreased by 4% from 2010-11. We are also concerned that cuts to capital spend will prove particularly detrimental, creating real and long-term difficulties for UK universities.  World-class infrastructure, particularly buildings and equipment, is needed to facilitate the very best environment for research and teaching. The Government’s prioritisation of research excellence and critical mass is welcome.  In the current economic conditions, it is particularly important to invest limited funds in the places where they will have the greatest impact. Our world-class, research-intensive universities have the critical mass and multi-disciplinary capacity to compete globally.We support the Government’s commitment to the dual support system which plays an essential part in sustaining research of the highest quality, and the combination of stable core funding and competitively awarded grants ensures the diversity and breadth of research in the UK.Our universities shall, of course, work with the Research Councils to ensure that they do all they can to reduce indirect costs associated with research and related postgraduate training.

 
 

 

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