Defence must not rest

With cuts looming on the horizon, the sector cannot afford to relent in pressing the case to protect the research budget

November 20, 2014

What’s an acceptable rate of failure when you’re dealing with something that is fundamental to your profession (rather than, say, trying your luck at the local trout lake or baking soufflés)?

It’s a question that comes up a lot in higher education, given the ferocious competition to win jobs, secure funding or publish research.

When we revealed a few weeks ago that as many as 200 applicants were chasing every early career post at top universities, the consensus seemed to be that while this was a sorry state of affairs, and hugely wasteful to boot, it was hardly a new development.

There may be a similar response to the publication this week of our annual analysis of research grant success rates, which shows that, across six of the UK research councils, 28 per cent of applications win funding (down from 30 per cent last year).

Osborne clearly believes in the economic power of research, and it would be an extraordinary own goal to cut the research budget

Perhaps this isn’t so bad – it’s certainly an improvement on the 24 per cent figure of four years ago.

Nevertheless, it highlights the fact that 72 per cent of applications draw a blank, which represents a huge expenditure of blood, sweat and tears. Having said that, it’s a competitive process, and the demand-management systems put in place to reduce wasted effort seem to be having some effect.

More worrying is the potential for a sharp decline in the cash available in future years.

In previous budget rounds, science has secured a flat-cash, ring-fenced settlement, with cuts to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills directed elsewhere.

But reports suggest that there could be up to £48 billion of cuts still to come across Whitehall after the general election, and David Cameron’s warning this week that we’re teetering on the brink of another global economic crisis may be teeing us up for more bad news in the Autumn Statement. With the research budget one of the last big pots of cash left within BIS, this causes understandable alarm.

The exercise of asking departments to identify cuts ahead of time is nothing new, and research has been spared in recent budget rounds thanks to successful lobbying and some dramatic policy interventions. One example was the way that teaching funding was shifted off the books and switched to student fees; another was the decision by chancellor George Osborne to turn forecast cuts on their head with a pledge to abolish the student numbers cap. But both were one-time deals with more than a whiff of financial trickery about them.

Fears for the research budget may also be stoked by the fact that David Willetts – a strong advocate for research – is no longer in the ministerial post, and senior BIS civil servants who have held the line in the past have also moved on, while the new director-general in charge of research does not have a science background.

The upside is that Osborne clearly believes in the economic power of research, and it would be an extraordinary own goal for whoever is in power next summer to cut the research budget given that the “bang for buck” delivered by UK research is among the best in the world.

But every department will be pleading for special protection, leaving no room for complacency as we make the case for investment – this isn’t the time for tales of the one that got away.

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