Chancellor Gordon Brown this week set out the largest sustained increase in science spending for a generation, yet research leaders warned there would be very little money left over for new research.
As reported in The Times Higher five weeks ago, Mr Brown's ten-year investment framework for science - officially published on Monday - pledged that research and development funding in the UK would rise from 1.9 per cent of gross domestic product to 2.5 per cent by 2014. This will thrust the UK to the top of the European spending league and bring its science budget much closer to that of the US.
During the spending review period 2004-05 to 2007-08, science spend in the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Education and Skills will increase at an average rate of 5.8 per cent a year. In 2007-08, research funding will reach £1.7 billion in the DFES and £3.3 billion in the DTI.
The injection of funds is being used mainly to put the academic community on a firmer footing for the future - investing in long-term needs such as facilities, buildings and the future supply of researchers.
The research councils and the Royal Society were this week urging caution.
Ian Diamond, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council told, The Times Higher: "At the moment it is very clear that there isn't a large amount of new money going into the research councils."
Professor Diamond, speaking on behalf of the Research Councils UK strategy group, said: "What is not clear is exactly how we are going to increase funding for responsive mode (research ideas suggested by the community)."
He said that the ESRC's success rates were "crashing", as more researchers applied for funds from the council's limited pot of money. Research council heads feared that the Treasury's failure to provide any major injection of cash for new research would exacerbate this problem.
Professor Diamond said: "We will be trying to maximise the money we put into responsive mode in the context of this very constricted budget. It is a very, very difficult tightrope to walk."
A clear tranche of new funding for science projects is the £70 million allocated to Sir Keith O'Nions, the director general of the research councils, for "emerging priorities" and "to underpin the health of disciplines".
No one is sure what this money will be spent on, but Professor Diamond said it might be for directed programmes rather than for researchers' own ideas.
The report gives six examples of priority areas: sustainable earth systems, systems biology, sustainable energy, cognitive systems, cyber trust and crime prevention, and identities and cultures.
But research council chief executives stressed that there was no guarantee that these areas would win funding, and that they would push for others to be considered.
Catherine Coates, director for planning and communications at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, said that the framework had concentrated on getting the long-term environment for research right.
She praised this approach but warned that the headline increases might have raised false hopes.
Ms Coates said: "The research councils will have to manage expectations within universities."
Julia Goodfellow, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, said: "We certainly all recognise the need for sustainability, but in bioscience, which is really buoyant, people want to forge ahead with research. It is getting the balance right that will be important."
She added that discussions about how the DTI's new money would be allocated between the eight councils had not begun.
Lord May of Oxford, the Royal Society president, this week congratulated the Treasury for trying to sort out sustainability issues. He said: "The temptation might have been to spend all the money on sexy science, but you can't do science without the infrastructure."
But he was concerned that exciting science projects might be left out in the cold.
Lord Sainsbury, Science Minister, said: "There are no new project areas so new money can go wherever research councils want it."
Ten reasons for cheer
Science, engineering and technology skills: Targets for the government
"There are areas where teaching and learning has not been heading in the right direction, especially physics, engineering and chemistry. There is a drive to improve things with some concrete measures."
Lord Sainsbury, science minister Schools :
- Double the number of science places on the Graduate Teacher Programme from 2005-06
- Increase the teacher-training bursary for science graduates from £6,000 to £7,000 and raise the golden hello for new science teachers from Pounds 4,000 to £5,000 from 2005
- Train a new cadre of science-specialist higher-level teaching assistants - enough for one in every secondary school by 2007-08@Caption/Signoff = Further education:
- Undertake research into why and when teachers join and leave the sector, with findings informing a long-term strategy
- Continue the golden hellos for teachers in shortage subjects from 2005-06
- Continue the bursary scheme for trainee teachers, with an expectation that future payments will be increased in scienceHigher education:
- Increase the PhD stipend in line with inflation over the spending review period
- Explore ways of getting information to prospective students about course quality and employment and salary prospects at each higher education institution.
- Maintain funding for golden hellos for new teaching staff in shortage subject areas beyond 2005-06 - subject to proof that this provides value for money Higher Education Funding Council for England:
- Hefce should work to increase numbers of people going into science and engineering in higher education by supporting institutions, industry and scientific societies in their outreach activities in schools and colleges
- Hefce should consider extra funding for university departments if failing provision in a region would hurt the economy.