Fears of a Treasury squeeze on higher education funding emerged this week despite Gordon Brown's pledge to put science and innovation at the heart of his summer spending review, writes Paul Hill.
The Institute of Public Policy Research, a centre-left think-tank with close links to Downing Street, has concluded that the chancellor will bow to pressure to put school funding and early-years education before the needs of universities and colleges.
The report comes as Mr Brown prepares his budget statement for next week, in which he is expected to set out details of the consultation with leading scientists as part of the science review.
The IPPR report, Tough Choices: The 2004 Spending Review , predicts that higher education will face a "relative squeeze" when Whitehall budgets are set for 2005-08.
Peter Robinson, IPPR senior economist, said: "Given the importance the government has placed on science in recent years, you would expect it to be one of the relative winners. But the scale of the science budget is modest compared with other public services - and the bigger debate is going to be about the size of the whole education budget."
Mr Robinson stressed that the chancellor's decisions on higher education funding would take no account of tuition fees. Universities will receive fee income only from 2006-07, the final year covered by the spending review.
"Tuition fees are not going to resolve the problems the government faces in this spending review if it wants to continue to increase education spending faster than the rate of the growth of the economy, as it has in the past four to five years," he said.
Charles Clarke, the education secretary, has promised to push for a real-terms increase in university funding in his department's pitch to the Treasury.
Ian Gibson, the Labour chairman of the Commons science and technology select committee, urged the chancellor to act to increase science funding rather than rely on further reviews.
Dr Gibson, MP for Norwich North, said: "We've had so many reviews, now we want to see the details of what difference it's going to make to the science budget and in what areas."
Dr Gibson added that his select committee was considering holding an inquiry into the chancellor's "proposals and strategy" for science once the details of the spending review were known later this year.