Campaigners fearing cuts in science spending have greeted with relief the news that the UK government is to freeze the research budget in real terms to 2020. This appears better than the outcome in the last Parliament in 2010, when the budget was frozen in cash terms only and subject to erosion by inflation.
As part of the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in November 2015, chancellor George Osborne announced that the £4.7bn science resource funding budget will reach £5.1bn – an increase of £500m – by 2020. When the budgets for resources and capital expenditure are added together, total research investment in 2019-20 will be £6.3bn, up from £5.8bn in 2015-16.
The resource budget will include a new £1.5bn Global Challenges fund. This money comes from the Department for International Development and is to address problems faced by developing countries, such as research into tropical diseases and developing crops. But full details are still unclear.
The capital budget will receive an investment of £6.9bn between 2015-16 and 2020-21. This includes up to £150m to launch a competition for a Dementia Institute. In addition, the government will invest £75m in the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratories.
Osborne also announced that the government is taking forward the recommendations of Paul Nurse’s independent review of the Research Councils and will introduce a new body – Research UK – to work across the seven individual councils.
The government will also look to integrate Innovate UK, its innovation agency, into Research UK, to strengthen collaboration between the research base and the commercialisation of discoveries in the business community. Innovate UK’s budget will be protected in cash terms for the next five years. Responsibility for research funds currently administered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) will also fall within Research UK. A review of the Research Excellence Framework to assess how it judges research excellence is also planned.
However, cuts in some government budgets may hit science research. The budgets for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) will be cut by 17%, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by 15% and the Department for Energy and Climate Change by 22%.
James Wilsdon of the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University welcomes the relative protection given to the science budget, but says it’s premature to see this as a good outcome for the long-term health of UK research. ‘A headline commitment to protecting science resource funding in real terms in an almost zero-inflation environment means no more than continued flat cash,’ he says.
‘Today’s announcements do little to reverse the broader trend of declining public investment in the generation of new knowledge. By 2020, the proportion of GDP being dedicated to publicly supported R&D will fall even further below its level in 2010 and may put greater distance between the UK and comparable countries.’ he added.
Alison Clough, acting chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, is also pleased the government is committed to protecting the science budget in real terms. However, she points out that promising to protect the budget, while at the same time adding new funding commitments could mean a cut in real terms. The announcement of cuts to BIS: changes in higher education funding; the implementation of the Nurse review; and the move from business grants to loans from Innovate UK, may cause upheaval and impact on the UK’s global competitiveness in science and innovation, she adds.
‘While this is a relief compared to the cuts that were feared, in our view, the settlement still falls well short of the robust investment in science that we really need to stay competitive internationally and to keep the economy growing,’ says Jenny Rohn of campaign group Science is Vital.