Leader: Science gains but must deliver

July 16, 2004

A ten-year commitment to expanding UK research would be welcome at any time. For it to be announced as part of a spending review that threatens more than 100,000 job losses in the public sector is truly remarkable. The timescale shows that the Government recognises the importance of science and the long time that it takes to produce results.

And there is every sign that the Treasury has listened to the research community in drafting its spending plans for the next three years. Much of the money will go on full economic costing for research and on sustaining the dual-support system. There is no enthusiasm for handing funding council cash to the research councils. Instead, universities may receive a sizeable cash bonus from the funding councils that they can use to develop new research areas. At the same time, there is more infrastructure money and cash for better-paid postgraduates. The result should be universities and research institutes that are better resourced than they are today and are more capable of competing with their international peers.

However, the downside is that very little of the new money will find its way into research funding for which academics at universities can apply.

Life in universities should be more attractive, with better resources and equipment and fewer complaints about careers. The paradox is that these better conditions could create more demand for research funding in a world where research councils already reject an unacceptably high percentage of the proposals they receive.

In any case, no government commits billions to any project without some idea of what it will get for its money. Although the ten-year plan contains warm words about the importance of knowledge for its own sake, financial return is the main criterion that Gordon Brown and his successors will apply when they judge the success of future research spending. Despite the promised jobs carnage across Whitehall, the science review promises more "horizon-scanning" to ensure that research turns into innovation and to make sure that barriers to innovation are lowered. The pressure will be on academics to show the economic relevance of their work and to prove its value by bringing in non-government funding.

However, it should not be forgotten that much of the ten-year investment programme will be needed to repair the low pay and poor infrastructure bequeathed by the errors of the past. By 2014, the UK will be spending about 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product on research, a figure that Germany manages today. There is still no chance of the UK achieving the Barcelona target of 3 per cent spending on research, which the European Union adopted in 2002.

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