Labour's infidelity will not be forgiven easily

March 23, 2007

By reclaiming £68 million in funding, the Government lost the trust of the science community, argues Martyn Amos.

Ripples from the collapse of Rover two years ago are apparently lapping at the doors of UK university departments. The decision to dip into research funds was, according to the Department of Trade and Industry, to cover "exceptional" costs. The demise of the car firm was a one-off budgetary burden that should be borne by all.

The image of an administration battling to save jobs in a region blighted by industrial decline is one the DTI is in no hurry to dispel. A closer inspection of the department's figures suggests the exercise was more about fiscal firefighting than industrial or social intervention. But behind the smokescreen of short-term financial juggling lie deeper concerns about fundamental breaches of trust.

Senior academics and industry leaders reacted with dismay to the announcement that about £68 million of funding destined for science would instead be diverted back to the DTI to address these "historic and new" financial pressures. Although the Rover debacle was pushed to the front of the crowd of good causes, other recipients of recalled funds lurked in the background. Jokes about David Cameron's alleged drug use at school have recently filled the corridors of Whitehall, but, to the Government, Weeed is no joke. That's the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment Directive to the uninitiated, a European Union edict that requires companies to dispose of obsolete white goods on behalf of consumers. UK implementation of this directive has been put on hold twice, the delay necessitating an additional funding shot to the tune of £ million - only a couple of million short of the £29 million taken back from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Michael Kenward, a former editor of New Scientist magazine, has highlighted the irony of funding the cost of delays in implementing electrical recycling by taking money away from the very agency that has green technologies at the top of its research agenda.

Whatever lies behind the decision to cut research funding, as a relatively junior member of staff I am acutely aware of the impact that these changes may have on the rank and file. The short-term implications are that roughly 100 research council grants will no longer be funded. Many of these would have been supported in "responsive mode", a mechanism designed to offer maximum flexibility in terms of project size and scope. Younger scientists are particularly encouraged to apply within this framework, as are those proposing adventurous or multidisciplinary research - all of which are vital to the long-term development of healthy science and innovation.

Since most grants run for between two and five years, the research councils are obliged to cover these future costs from a much diminished purse and must cut back on flexible short-term activities. These include studentships and fellowships - precisely the mechanisms by which new researchers establish their groups and develop their careers. Risky long-term research will be sacrificed for the purposes of short-term expediency.

Perhaps more significant, this decision represents a sea change in the relationship between Labour and the scientific community. For the first time since taking power, the Government has reneged on its promises about the funding of science. This had previously enjoyed protected status within the Office of Science and Innovation to encourage medium to long-term research that might extend beyond the lifetime of governments. The dismantling of this ring fence has sent out a signal to some that the DTI can choose to ignore Treasury rules on science funding whenever it sees fit.

Early portents of the cuts came soon after the resignation of Lord Sainsbury from his post of Science Minister, a long tenure that had been greeted with approval by the research community. According to one insider quoted in The Times Higher in the wake of the announcement of the cuts:

"The fact that he has left has made this possible." The formal announcement came while his successor, Malcolm Wicks, was on a trip visiting an operation funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

The Government will argue that the cuts amount to less than 1 per cent of the total science budget and that funding levels will be restored or even improved but, like a cheating partner, it must understand that the long-term damage wrought by its breach of trust cannot simply be undone by promises to behave better in future.

Martyn Amos is a senior lecturer in computing, Manchester Metropolitan University, and author of Genesis Machines , published by Atlantic Books, Pounds 18.99.

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