Byrne tackles Willetts over science capital on debut

The capital element of the science budget should be ring fenced to avoid the peril of “announcement-based politics”, according to Labour’s new shadow minister for the sector.

October 31, 2013

In his first public appearance since taking on the brief, Liam Byrne said he was excited by his new position as shadow universities, science and skills minister, and pledged to be “shop-steward-in-chief” for the science lobby.

Speaking at the Campaign for Science Engineering’s science policy debate at the Royal Society on October 30, part of London Science Festival, Mr Byrne commended David Willetts, the universities and science minister, for securing a commitment from the chancellor in the last spending round to spend upwards of £1 billion a year on science capital until 2020.

But Mr Byrne, a former chief secretary to the Treasury, planned to use “every ounce” of his experience to argue additionally for a long-term, ring-fenced resource budget allocation to the research councils, “with a strategy to go with it”. As well as aiding science, this would also encourage large multinational companies to maintain their research and development facilities in the UK.   

Drawing attention to Mr Byrne’s famous note, on leaving office, that there was “no money left”, Mr Willetts said his initial priority had been to preserve current activity, and admitted capital sending had taken a “hit” in the 2010 spending review.

But he noted that most of the lost capital has been returned in successive budgets and autumn statements, adding that the capital commitment to 2020 offered the prospect of a “proper long term strategic plan” for science.

The government has been criticised for allocating much of the returned capital to specific large projects, and Mr Byrne said the government need to avoid “big shiny project syndrome”.

He said that restoring the capital budget to the ring fence, where it resided under the last Labour government, would avoid this peril, since it would be left to the research councils to allocate it as they saw fit.

Mr Willetts pointed out that Labour’s commitment to lowering tuition fees to £6,000 would take £3 billion out of the system, which would have to be replaced through public expenditure.

“When money is tight my view is they will be hard pressed to replace that income. The idea there will be anything left over to improve science is implausible,” the minister argued.

Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert, a former scientist, said he wanted to see fees abolished but he could not say where the money would come from to do it.

Mr Byrne said a forthcoming government auditors’ revaluation of the assumptions on the level of non-repayment of student loans would apply a “pretty serious hit to the existing system. So we all have issues to work over the next four or five months before we get to manifesto time.”

Mr Willetts and Mr Byrne agreed on the need for an industrial strategy.

Mr Willetts denied science had entered into a “Mephistophelean pact” in which it had “sold its soul to get funding”.

He agreed with Mr Byrne and Dr Huppert that blue skies research needed to be protected, and insisted that the chancellor also appreciated non-economic arguments for the value of science.

Mr Byrne also called for greater UK participation in international science projects and for the UK to adopt the Israeli model of regional innovation funding.

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