Government accused of cutting science budget ‘by the back door’

The government’s rhetoric on the protection of science funding has not been matched by the “alarming” fiscal reality, according to the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

September 14, 2011

In a report published today, Public Funding of UK Science and Engineering: Putting Government Rhetoric to the Test, the lobby group claims that £1.6 billion less will have been spent on science by 2014-15 than would have been if the government maintained spending at 2010-11 levels.

George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, said when presenting last year’s Budget that the government would not “cut the cash” going to science.

Mr Osborne defined the science budget as money for the seven research councils, “quality related” research funding from the higher education funding councils and other programmes such as knowledge transfer funding.

Despite this, CaSE contends that, using the “pre-2010” definition of the science budget – which includes capital expenditure – spending has been cut by 12 per cent in cash terms.

The report also states that, even with a frozen budget, science spending will decrease in real terms due to inflation increasing at a higher rate than expected.

CaSE cites as an example statistics from the Department of Health – which is expected to increase spending from £1.025 billion in 2011-12 to £1.089 billion in 2014-15.

Inflation would have to stay at less than 2.74 per cent for that to count as a real-terms increase, it says. In fact, inflation has remained above 4 per cent throughout the year.

Imran Khan, director of CaSE, said that more money needed to be invested in science and engineering, or the UK would “feel the costs for decades to come”.

“The government received praise for earmarking science and engineering as an area that must be invested in if we’re to achieve growth,” he said.

“However, we need to start looking ahead and asking if this financial settlement is really going to help the UK get to where it needs to be.

“A nation like ours has to invest in research and development, or risk becoming irrelevant and uncompetitive.”

Lord Rees, former president of the Royal Society, said that the message of the survey was “disquieting” and said that the UK’s university system was “at risk” if more investment was not forthcoming.

“If we don’t match the investment of other nations, and are perceived to be in relative decline, we will lose, rather than attract, the mobile talent that is crucial for sustained excellence.

“And we will send a negative signal to young people who are ambitious to pursue a scientific career. The sum 'saved’ by these real-terms reductions is very small compared to the opportunity costs of choking off a long-term recovery.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “Despite enormous pressure on public spending, science and research programme funding has been protected in cash terms at £4.6 billion annually over the spending review period. “This is a very good outcome for science and research, and the ring-fence has been extended to Hefce’s quality-related research funding for the first time. A strong research base is vital for Britain's future in the global knowledge economy.

“Furthermore, an additional investment of £100 million in 2011-12 was announced in the last Budget. It is already being used to develop infrastructure at the national research campuses in Daresbury, Norwich, Harwell and Cambridge.”

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