Keeping calm and lobbying on

With less panic than it showed prior to 2010’s flat-cash result, science hopes for another round of it-could-have-been-worse

November 19, 2015
'Keep calm' note pinned to corkboard

In the run-up to the 2010 spending review, cuts to the science budget of up to 25 per cent were mooted, with reductions of 10 or 20 per cent widely perceived to be on the agenda.

The result was a collective howl of horror from the research community. The Royal Society warned that 20 per cent cuts would be “game over” for UK science. Reports talking up the economic value of science investment were churned out, and scientists demonstrated en masse outside the Treasury under the banner “Science is vital”.

So when, unexpectedly, a flat-cash settlement was announced, it was met with mild euphoria. Perhaps, in reality, it was a triumph for expectation management, but the sense that science had dodged a bullet was so strong that it even earned a bemused universities and science minister, David Willetts, a large bouquet from one stalwart of the science journalism community.

This time around, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has been asked to prepare for cuts of 25 per cent and 40 per cent. BIS is headed by a libertarian Conservative, Sajid Javid, who is said to be actively campaigning for 40 per cent. And it is hard to see how such cuts could be realised without cutting the science budget (which includes non-science research), given that it now accounts for a quarter of the entire BIS budget.

And yet 2010 levels of hysteria are conspicuous by their absence. The president of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, held a news conference in which he said that only a Neanderthal would impose cuts of 25 per cent. And Science is Vital – the organisation that arose out of the 2010 demonstration – staged another rally. But even its vice-chair, Stephen Curry, admitted that the most likely outcome of the spending review on 25 November is another flat-cash settlement.

That this view is widely shared among observers is testament to the extent to which the chancellor, George Osborne, has come to be seen as a champion of science. Describing it as a “personal priority” that is crucial to rebalancing the economy, Osborne has used successive Budgets and Autumn Statements to pump in additional funding. It would be a remarkable volte-face if he now stood aside and let Javid do his worst.

But should that earn him a floral tribute? Lobbyists will say not. Flat cash has meant a real terms decline of upwards of 10 per cent, amounting, according to the Campaign for Science and Engineering, to a loss of £1 billion over the course of the last Parliament. One consequence, pointed out by the Commons Science and Technology Committee, is that scientific infrastructure is being underused. Nurse semi-joked that only a Homo habilis – another extinct proto-human – would opt for flat cash, and calls are common for the UK to increase its science spending, as a proportion of GDP, to the G7 or Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development averages.

Critics also complain that Osborne’s tendency to earmark new funding for specific projects, such as Willetts’ “eight great technologies”, leads to the neglect of existing facilities and stifles the creativity on which major breakthroughs depend. But given the economic straitjacket into which Osborne – with the support of the UK electorate – has strapped himself, a second flat-cash settlement, if it transpires, may still merit the slipping of a rose – thorns and all – into whatever passes for a buttonhole in such a garment.

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