Universities and science minister Jo Johnson has told MPs that it is more important to focus on the outputs from research rather than the inputs, in answer to questions about whether the government will increase science investment.
Speaking in front of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee for the first time, Mr Johnson said that looking at what science generates from government funding was a better indicator of performance than the amount of money spent.
He added that he could not pre-empt the effect that the spending review would have on the science budget.
The UK currently spends about 1.7 per cent of GDP on research and development from public and private sources. This has fallen in recent years and is behind the average across the European Union, which is about 2.1 per cent.
The government has so far not said if the science budget will remain protected from cuts in the upcoming spending review as it did under the coalition government.
When asked by the committee if the ring fence would remain after 2015-16, Mr Johnson said that the government had a “strong track record” of promoting science in tightened fiscal times and this “speaks volumes” about its commitment to it.
He added that science “could not hope for a chancellor who prioritises science and innovation [more than George Osborne] does”, and that the Conservative manifesto would be implemented in full, including its commitments on increasing capital spending up to 2020-21. The manifesto makes no commitment to further protect the science budget.
When asked if the UK should increase spending on research and development as a proportion of GDP, Mr Johnson said: “It is important to focus on outputs rather than inputs…It is better to look at what are we generating from our investment and is it sufficient rather than measuring our performance on the basis of what we are spending on something.”
He added that statistics on spending overlook the efficiency and effectiveness of the UK science base and the “high returns” the government gets from investing in science. “Our priority needs to be to maintain the nature of our science base,” he said.
“We want to be very wary of any slippage in indicators,” he said, adding that the government would be “very attentive” if slips occurred.
Mr Johnson said that the £450 million of additional cuts that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills must find for 2015-16 will not affect funding set aside during this period for science.
He said that universities are “very stably funded” and that per student funding was better now than it was in 2010. He added that he had “every confidence” that universities are in a position to continue doing their jobs despite funding cuts.