Science and politics

C&I Issue 4, 2015

The UK government spends less than any other G8 country on science, according to campaign group Science is Vital. UK investment in science dropped below 0.5% of GDP in 2012, its lowest point in over two decades.

Campaigners trying to raise the issue of science funding in the run up to May’s general election blame the steady decline in the real value of the science budget since the government froze funding in 2010; cuts in capital expenditure; and reductions in departmental spending on research.

While the group welcomes government commitment to a capital budget that will invest nearly £6bn in new facilities and equipment from 2016 to 2021, it argues that this sits uneasily beside the steady drop in money for the running costs of public R&D. If this erosion of funding is allowed to continue, Britain’s world-leading research capabilities are likely to degenerate, it warns.

Science is Vital wants the government to increase total public expenditure on R&D to at least 0.8% of GDP, the average spend across the G8 nations. ‘We need to ask our [parliamentary] representatives to increase our investment in research to the level of other leading economies,’ says Andrew Steele, a researcher at Cancer Research UK and vice-chair of Science is Vital.

With the General Election looming, the group has launched a campaign that asks supporters to contact their local MP and parliamentary candidates to let them know how important science is to them and their community.

Meanwhile, another group, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), points out that 20% of the UK workforce is employed in science and engineering roles. It has invited prospective parliamentary candidates to write on its website why science and engineering is important to the UK and how they would support this as a MP. So far, it has received over 100 responses from candidates across the political parties.

But how much is science featuring in the political conversation in the run-up to the election? Not nearly enough, says Ben Martin of the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex. ‘Science has been almost completely invisible in the political dialogue. The UK depends more than most countries on knowledge and innovation, and on the underpinning science for this. The woefully inadequate levels of public and private funding for research is therefore a major threat to the wellbeing of future generations.’

James Wilsdon, also of SPRU, is concerned, too: ‘Five years into a flat-cash budget, the strains on the system are visible.’ While figures based on GDP are ‘not the most precise… even so, this [Science is Vital] analysis is valuable,’ he says, ‘as it shows the clear long-term trend of other countries increasing investment in real terms but not the UK.’

‘At the top level in all parties,’ says Wilsdon, ‘they say positive things about the importance of science and research but on a detailed level there a lot of balls in the air and it is not clear where, and in what pattern or timeframe, they’re going to land. Real-term investment is a difficult political path to take in light of the overall state of public finances.’

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