Paul Boyle, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester, said that “things are starting to get really challenging” as the nation now invests less than half a per cent of its GDP in research.
Professor Boyle added that the government would be “short sighted” not to see that other countries are continuing to invest in science despite the economic downturn.
He was speaking at the annual conference of the Association for Research Managers and Administrators in Brighton on 2 June. In March this year an analysis by the Science is Vital group revealed that public research investment had fallen below 0.5 per cent of GDP in 2012.
Professor Boyle, who was head of the Economic and Social Research Council before moving to Leicester in 2014, said that the UK was particularly efficient at funding research.
“We get more bang for our buck than pretty much any other nation. However that is an argument which if you use it for too long suggests that we can continue to reduce science funding and we won't see any negative outcome. Of course we know that is not true,” he added.
In 2010 the coalition government agreed a flat cash settlement for the research budget. Depending on how inflation is counted research is getting 12-15 per cent less now than it was previously, said Professor Boyle.
“[With] one or two years of flat cash, frankly the research councils, universities and others can manage,” he said.
But he added: “I think we are getting to a situation where things are starting to get really challenging. The fact that we have dropped below half a per cent is a real eye opener…We have got to start thinking seriously about what that means for science.”
He argued that funding should be at around 1 per cent of GDP, but said it was unlikely this would be achieved in one jump.
“This coming [government spending] settlement it is a very challenging one but I think there has to be a direction of travel where the government makes sure its long-term aim is in science… It would be short sighted not to look at what some other countries are doing at the moment,” he said.
He added that research funding in countries such as Germany, France and the US had not been hit as hard as that of the UK.