Chief Scientific Adviser casts doubt on £1 billion package for research

Parlous state of UK finances leaves science funding uncertain. Zoë Corbyn reports

April 2, 2009

The Government's Chief Scientific Adviser has poured cold water on hopes that there could be more money for scientific research in this month's Budget.

Last week, John Beddington told an audience at the Royal Society that he was "not confident" that there would be extra funding for science, despite the US' major spending increase on research to combat the global recession.

Professor Beddington said that recent doubts about the state of the UK's finances raised by Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, could not be ignored.

"I hope that a private decision will be taken to give science and technology the appropriate priority in the next Budget, whether it is a fixed fiscal stimulus or a (funding) increase ... (but) I don't know and I am not confident that it will definitely happen," he said.

"We can't ignore the fact that ... there is a major issue in terms of the amount of money that could ... be used to stimulate the economy."

It had previously been reported that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was pressing the Treasury for a £1 billion increase in funding for scientific research as part of a stimulus package. This is on top of the Imperial College London-led proposal for £1 billion to support university spin-off firms.

The UK's research councils had reportedly been asked to provide a "shopping list" of projects they could institute quickly.

A DIUS spokesman would not confirm the £1 billion figure, but said it was "not surprising" that ministers should seek advice from the research councils, given the economic climate and the debate about research priorities called for by John Denham, the Universities Secretary.

Mark Walport, head of the Wellcome Trust, told the Royal Society audience, which had gathered to discuss US science policy, that there were "dangers" in receiving too much money too quickly.

"What we need is sustainable growth, if possible," he said.

In the US, the economic stimulus package unveiled by President Barack Obama in February included an injection of more than $21 billion (£15 billion) for science, including an extra $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health.

Harold Varmus, co-chair of President Obama's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, said the US had a number of highly rated "shovel-ready" projects on which to spend the increases.

"I don't think it is a secret that the Administration was initially asking for a lot less than ultimately came to pass," he said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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