Capital pains: axe to fall as BIS plans to share the losses

Minister expects 44% cut to be shared equally across department's portfolio. Paul Jump writes

December 2, 2010

The capital budget for research facilities is to be cut by 44 per cent, the universities and science minister has confirmed.

A cash-terms cut of 44 per cent for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review, but the proportion to be borne by research had been unclear.

Appearing before the Commons Science and Technology Committee last week, David Willetts said the precise figures had yet to be agreed, but that he expected the cut to be shared equally across the department's portfolio of responsibilities.

Gregg McClymont, Labour MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, described a 44 per cent cut as "enormous" and warned that the coalition risked "repeating the historic mistake of protecting current expenditure at the expense of investment in the future".

Mr Willetts said that bringing on young scientists was just as important an investment in the future. He hoped the fact that two large projects were going ahead - the upgrade of the Diamond Light Source and the construction of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation - would "ease what is going to be a very tough capital settlement".

The revenue budget for research was protected in cash terms in the CSR and Mr Willetts said the current division of funding between the research councils, as well as between the councils and the quality-related (QR) funding stream, did not warrant significant alteration.

He added that the government's pledge to protect the Medical Research Council's budget in real terms would largely be achievable through the MRC's "healthy and growing" revenue from intellectual property.

He did not rule out transferring the distribution of QR money to another organisation if the Higher Education Funding Council for England was merged into a larger regulatory body (as envisaged in the Browne Review), but added that the dual-support system would remain.

He hoped the CSR settlement meant funding for "strong" university departments would be preserved regardless of the overall quality of their parent institutions.

The restatement of the Haldane principle would not lead to any revision of the axiom that decisions on funding for specific disciplines should be left to academics, he said.

However, it would clarify "fuzzy" issues such as whether ministers could stipulate that funding be spread around the regions.

He pledged that Technology and Innovation Centres, announced last month, would be spread around the country. He hoped that the £200 million programme would attract "significant" private investment.

He also admitted there were "lessons to be learned" from the controversy surrounding the appointment process for BIS' new post of director general for knowledge and innovation.

Adrian Smith, BIS' current director general for science and research, was awarded the role late last month. But the move was made only after academics had warned that relations between the government and the science community could be damaged if the appointee, who will oversee the research budget, were not a senior scientist.

Mr Willetts said Professor Smith's appointment had been a "very satisfactory outcome", but admitted there was "untidiness" in the relevant appointment principles that had to be cleaned up.

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