Spending review: will your subject get any extra money?

Unexpected creation of a ‘Global Challenges Research Fund’ means that if they want more money, academics may have to contribute to international development

November 26, 2015
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If your research is on malarial resistance or climate change, this spending review could be lucrative news indeed. But for the medievalists and theoretical physicists out there, it may herald another five years of declining funding in real terms.

The headline from George Osborne yesterday was that over the next five years research funding will be protected in real terms; that is, it will rise with inflation, rather than being held steady in cash terms as has been the case since 2010. By 2020-21, it is expected to have risen by more than £500 million annually.

But what’s most intriguing is how these increases in the budget will be distributed. According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the extra money will go to a new Global Challenges Research Fund, something that we found lurking unexpectedly in the small print of the spending review yesterday.

This fund will “ensure UK science takes the lead in addressing the problems faced by developing countries whilst developing our ability to deliver cutting-edge research”, according to the review. Over the next five years, it will be worth £1.5 billion – around 6 per cent of the total spending on research.

Initially, this baffles. Why would a spending review focused so keenly on British growth and productivity demand increases in research funding be spent on global problems?

What appears to have happened is that pro-science forces within government have successfully made the case that much of UK research can actually be badged as part of the official development assistance (ODA) budget. This is effectively aid to developing countries, on which, controversially, the government has committed to spend 0.7 per cent of the UK’s gross national income. This new fund will count towards the 0.7 per cent target, creating scope for the science budget to be increased. 

So a lot depends on how this new fund will work. What will these new “global challenges” be? Who will decide them? Will it simply be a case of badging things the research councils would have funded anyway as part of the fund, or will there be a whole new process for applying for money?

BIS has said that more information on the fund will follow in “due course”, although it has clarified that it will be distributed “predominately” through the existing research councils.

But what is clear is that if researchers want to see more money this parliament, they may well have to make a case that their subject addresses “global challenges” (unless there is some kind of rejigging of other funds to compensate the losers).

It might be churlish to find fault with a spending review that exceeded the expectations of many scientists. But it may dampen the relief felt yesterday to find that the government appears to have increased research funding merely to help fulfill an unrelated aid target (although, to be fair, there may have been other departments that also made the claim that part of their expenditure could count towards the 0.7 per cent target, but were unsuccessful).

Another note of caution. The 0.7 per cent ODA target is perhaps the most politically vulnerable ring-fence in Whitehall. It has been repeatedly attacked by Right-of-centre newspapers. In the view of the Daily Mail this morning, “isn’t it sheer lunacy that we now spend more on despots abroad than on a Home Office charged with keeping us safe on our streets?” This may not be a fair representation of the ODA budget (which of course now includes scientific research). But if the 0.7 per cent target becomes a victim of events this parliament, then this could upset the science budget. 

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