Leader: Now you see it, now you don't

Science and universities are vital to economic recovery, but the Chancellor offered them only budgetary sleight of hand

April 30, 2009

It was as much about what was not in the Budget as what was in there. The Government missed a trick when it came to recognising the huge part universities and research have to play in delivering the UK out of the economic mess it now finds itself in.

An investment in research is a down payment on our futures. But in stark contrast to the US, there was no additional funding for science to stimulate the economy. Although it is notoriously difficult to measure exactly what return for money science can deliver to the taxpayer, there are unarguably massive tangible benefits, albeit some years down the line.

And the most visible of the economic gains is people transfer: graduates who provide the country with a skilled and globally competitive workforce. But no provision has been made for the thousands of extra would-be students applying to university to improve their own and their country's chances in the recession.

Universities, with their mix of education and training, blue-skies and applied research and enterprise, are ideally placed to help the UK through hard times. But instead of conjuring up extra cash for them, Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, has spirited it away, leaving a disappointed and disillusioned sector. Gordon Brown's recent promise not to "allow science to become a victim of the recession" now sounds very hollow.

Paul Wellings, chairman-elect of the 1994 Group of small research-led universities, summed it up: "Cutting higher education funding during a recession is the complete opposite of what the country needs."

Two new uncertainties now face universities.

The first is just how the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills intends to make £400 million in cuts to fulfil its required "efficiency savings".

The second concerns the science and research budget. DIUS ministers, having failed to secure a penny of the £1 billion in extra funding that they were reportedly seeking, are to press ahead with their grand vision of aligning academic research with industrial strengths by redistributing £106 million within the research council budget, which will remain ring-fenced.

Most of this money will come from cuts to existing programmes, and there is no blanket guarantee that existing grants will remain intact.

The outcomes raise serious questions about both the effectiveness and the modus operandi of the new Science Minister, Lord Drayson. Why has science done so poorly when he sits on the Cabinet? Where is the rigorous and transparent consultation that has led DIUS to claim that the five research priorities that will shape the science budget are those "that the research community has identified"?

Lord Rees, the president of the Royal Society, puts it eloquently: it is "topsy-turvy that a Government that is rightly reluctant to 'pick winners' in its industrial policy should aspire to do this in the intrinsically less predictable arena of academic research".

And it is insulting to imply that researchers have chosen these priorities themselves.

We had wanted some Obama magic writ large, but instead got Darling hocus-pocus in the small print. This makes the task of trying to keep up with the scientific might of the US and retain our research talent even harder than before. It will now fall to the universities to try to pull that particular rabbit out of the hat.


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