CAMBRIDGE, U.K.--The British government is placing a big bet on science and technology to make the country more competitive. On 12 July, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown pledged to increase spending on science by £1 billion ($1.9 billion) by fiscal year 2007-08. And in a 10-year strategy paper, he laid out a plan to push R&D spending to a level that would put the United Kingdom on a par with its major European rivals and not far behind the United States.
The announcement was part of the chancellor's spending review for the 3-year period from 2005-06 to 2007-08. Brown outlined plans across a wide range of government programs from national security to overseas aid and, controversially, said he would fire more than 100,000 civil servants to help pay for it. But at a time when the chancellor proposed keeping a lid on many areas of government spending, "science does better than just about anywhere," notes Robert May, president of the Royal Society.
The spending plans for science--amounting to an increase of 5.8% per year above inflation for 3 years--do not specify particular programs or facilities that might get the money, but instead seek to strengthen the whole research system. A large part of the government's new spending is devoted to technology transfer into industry, where R&D spending lags behind Britain's competitors. The 10-year strategy, Brown said, "is designed to make Britain the best and most attractive location for science and innovation in the coming years."
The spending plan promises to tinker with the "dual support" system for funding U.K. research. At the moment, research grants do not cover the full cost of conducting the research; much of the overheads are covered by the universities from funds supplied by other government bodies. From September 2005 onwards, the research councils will ramp up their contribution. Conservation biologist Peter Cotgreave, director of the pressure group Save British Science, welcomes this move but wishes "we could get there sooner," so that university funds could be freed up for "offbeat ideas that are not yet ready for a grant."
Although the government has promised larger grants for trainee science teachers and doctoral students as well as improved salaries for science teachers and postdocs, Cotgreave is dismayed that it has done nothing to improve the chronically poor salaries of university researchers. In a global market where Britain's best scientists are often lured overseas, "the government has not addressed the problem of retention."
With reporting by Fiona Proffitt.