Budget hike masks cut to science base

April 28, 2000

The long-term decline in support for research and development by government departments is undermining efforts to boost British science, according to an influential group of MPs.

It runs counter to ministers' professed wish to encourage evidence-based policy decisions and jeopardises the health of the country's science base.

A report into government expenditure on research and development published by the House of Commons science and technology committee last week was particularly concerned with the situation at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, where one of Whitehall's largest research budgets has been slashed by 10 per cent over the lifetime of this Parliament.

Committee chairman Michael Clark said: "If the Maff example is typical, it has alarming implications for government science policy."

Government research expenditure has risen to Pounds 6.75 billion this year and is projected to reach Pounds 6.96 billion by 2001-02. But this increase has benefited mainly the Office of Science and Technology and masks the decline in departmental spending, which will fall to Pounds 1.29 billion by 2001-02, down by more than 33 per cent since 1987.

The only departments that have received an increase in funding are Environment, Transport and the Regions, up 0.9 per cent, and Education and Employment, which has received a 51.9 per cent raise.

The impact has been felt throughout the UK's scientific community. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has stated that cuts in Maff funding over the past 15 years have put pressure on its science budget.

The council said projects had been shelved and staffing in the eight institutes that the two bodies jointly support cut by more than 33 per cent since 1982, with resources diverted to meet redundancy costs.

"If Maff funding for an area of work ends, the BBSRC does not have the financial flexibility to support it from other sources. This represents a significant loss to science," the BBSRC stated.

The Royal Society warned that the UK spends only 1.8 per cent of its gross domestic product on research, which is "too low for a country trying to compete globally in a knowledge-driven economy".

According to the Royal Academy of Engineering, policy-makers appear to view research as a vehicle to support government policy and not as a source of knowledge or as a means of creating social and economic benefits.

The academy's submission to the committee said: "The lack of influence of the Office of Science and Technology over Maff and an observed disbelief in the relevance of science and technological research to government policy, is held to be a cause for concern."

Nick Brown, minister of agriculture, fisheries and food, said Maff had received a particularly tough settlement in the last comprehensive spending review, which had forced a series of unwelcome cuts. But he said priority areas, such as BSE and organic farming, had been sheltered from cuts.

"It is essential to us to have high-quality scientific advice with which to develop, inform and implement our policies and regulatory responsibilities," he said.

The report concludes that "suspicion persists that the increased science budget (the OST's money) is being asked to bear the brunt of cuts in departmental allocations. Such a policy is neither sensible nor sustainable."

MPs have called for the coming review and the science white paper to reverse the decline in expenditure, elevate the minister for science to cabinet rank, expand the role of the chief scientific adviser and implement an office of science.

MPs also want to see a review of short-term contracts. The Institute of Biology, in a joint statement with 20 other scientific associations, has claimed that the domination of short-term contracts has had a detrimental effect on the development of appropriate skills and knowledge among young scientists.

The Commons science and technology committee is to conduct an inquiry into the impact of the 1993 white paper Realising Our Potential, the results of which will be fed into the development of the forthcoming science and innovation white paper.

The report can be viewed at www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm/ cmsctech.htm.

Leader, page 14; Research, page 28

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