Joy at science's CSR result sours as fiscal reality bites

Cuts and inflation eat away at spending review deal - and researchers' goodwill. John Gill writes

September 29, 2011

The thrill is gone: James Wilsdon says the science community is growing less enamoured of the government

The goodwill felt towards David Willetts and the government after the flat-cash settlement for science in last autumn's Comprehensive Spending Review has "rapidly begun to evaporate", according to a senior official at the Royal Society.

In a contribution to a collection of articles published by the 1994 Group of universities, James Wilsdon, director of science policy at the society, says the disillusion was "in part because the science community has now had an opportunity to digest the fine print of the spending review settlement".

The flat-cash deal, which won the universities and science minister plaudits last October, "sounds survivable", he writes, "but when inflation is running at close to 5 per cent, the losses start to mount up".

"Added to this are heavy cuts to capital expenditure, of around 35 per cent, even taking into account the £220 million of new investment in the Francis Crick Institute and a one-off £100 million capital injection in the April 2011 Budget."

Other concerns include a lack of funding for taught MSc courses, he says, which scientists fear "could choke off the pipeline of PhD and postgraduate researchers, especially when the number of PhD studentships is also being reduced".

The remarks appear in Reforming the Academy: How Can UK Universities Adapt to the New Policy Environment, published at this week's Labour Party conference.

Dr Wilsdon, who is to join the University of Sussex as professor of science and democracy in November, also addresses the recent anger directed at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council over the implementation of cuts.

The response to the council's "shaping capabilities" programme - which has decided which areas of research will grow, stay the same or shrink - had provoked "predictable anger", he writes.

In fighting its corner, the scientific community must, he warns, "avoid expending precious political capital on minor battles". Instead, efforts should be made to influence the government's forthcoming research strategy and secure the long-term expansion of funding.

Earlier this month, the Campaign for Science and Engineering published a report that claimed that the government's rhetoric on the protection of science funding had not been matched by the "alarming" fiscal reality.

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