Hold the bubbly...

July 16, 2004

The Chancellor gave science some good news but no reason to pop the cork, says Peter Cotgreave

For weeks in advance, the leaks and gossip all suggested that good news was coming in the Government's spending review and its ten-year framework for science. I would have had champagne on ice had I not become cynical after years of watching announcements that promise gifts for everyone only to read in the fine print that the batteries are not included.

When it came, the spending review, which covers the next three years, contained some good news. Leaving aside the fact that some of the new money had already been announced, the science base will still receive an average rise of 5.8 per cent for three years. There will also be some narrowing of the gap that the Government has unwisely opened between funding for individual research projects and cash for local priorities, such as investing in new ideas that are not yet sufficiently developed to attract grant funding.

The big disappointment was the lack of any serious new investment to recruit and retain the best people. Universities are in danger of having fantastic laboratories (paid for by the extremely welcome continuing stream of funding for infrastructure) but finding it increasingly difficult to get the best out of these facilities because they cannot attract and keep world-class researchers, who are pulled in all directions by substantially better salaries offered abroad, in industry or for jobs outside science altogether.

The ten-year framework for investment in science also contains some good news, although it is hard to find among the impenetrable mass of repetition and jargon. Parts of it are lifted word-for-word from previous Government reviews and strategies. There's a lot of talk about targets and strategies, and not much about creativity and freedom. This document is not going to excite many people in the world of science.

The section on managing the research base tells us that the Office of Science and Technology and the research councils will develop an "integrated and efficient performance management system". No doubt that sounds rather exciting to whoever wrote it, but it will make the room feel suddenly very cold to those creative researchers who thought the research councils were supposed to be dedicated to funding exciting scientific proposals.

And the suggestion that science teachers will get golden hellos of £5,000 rather than £4,000 will not lead to hordes of physics graduates queuing up to get into the classroom.

I don't want to suggest that the framework is all bad. As a solid piece of work that proves that the Government machine has been thinking about science, it is at least substantial (it runs to 190 pages). So by random chance it contains some good things. A move towards the research councils paying the full economic costs of research projects is welcome, even if the aim is a decade away. A 50 per cent increase in funding for the Higher Education Innovation Fund is welcome, even if the new total of £110 million seems dwarfed by the £3 billion science budget.

What worries me is that after seven years of harsh political reality, the Government's ambitions for science seem to have been scaled down. Although Gordon Brown's rhetoric is about making Britain the best place in the world to do science, the Chancellor says that his long-term aim is to invest 2.5 per cent of the nation's wealth in research, somewhat less than Japan, the US and emerging technological giants such as South Korea invest.

Last year, Tony Blair signed up to a European target of investing 3 per cent in science, but ministers no longer pretend they are even trying to achieve that.

I did not have champagne on ice on Monday because I didn't really believe the hyped-up gossip. In the end, I went home and had a quiet Scotch because, among all the political hurly-burly of slashing public expenditure and furious rows between the Prime Minister and Chancellor, science is at least just about holding its own.

Peter Cotgreave is director of Save British Science.

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