It is likely that the 2010-11 science budget would be cut if the Conservative Party wins the forthcoming general election, its shadow science minister has hinted.
Speaking at the third cross-party debate on science in London, Adam Afriyie said he would “hold a party” if the Tories managed to maintain spending in the short term.
“It is very, very difficult to see that in the short term lots more money will come to science,” he said.
“I am happy personally to hold a party if we manage to maintain science expenditure at the level that Labour leaves it, because these are troubled times.”
He was more positive, however, about the medium- and longer-term funding prospects for science, indicating that when the economy was “fixed”, a Tory government would see to it that scientists got the resources they needed to “continue the vital research that puts Britain at the top of the league tables”.
He also committed a Conservative government to allocating a “multi-year ring-fenced science budget”, which he said would be drawn up as soon as practicable should they come to power.
Previously he has committed only to the “principle” of the ring-fence.
The current ring-fence is set to expire at the end of 2010-11, when the ongoing Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) period concludes.
Lord Drayson, the science minister, and Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat shadow science minister, both said that their parties had no plans to cut the 2010-11 science budget.
Dr Harris said at the debate on 9 March that this should be seen by voters as a “clear difference” between the two parties and the Conservatives.
“We and Labour will not cut next year because we will not cut until we are out of recession,” he said. “I am concerned about the short term if there are going to be swingeing cuts in the next year.”
In the pre-Budget report in December, the government announced £600 million in cuts to the higher education, science and research budgets over the next CSR period, although it has not said precisely where the axe will fall.
Mr Afriyie also used the debate to chastise the government for failing to hold a CSR last year as planned, which he said would have given greater certainty to the science community on funding issues.
He also accused the government of “dipping into the science ring-fence” to cover exchange-rate fluctuations that had blown a hole in the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s budget, a charge Lord Drayson denied.
The Royal Society of Chemistry, which organised the debate and has become known for its media stunts, said that it will send politicians complimentary cans of Lynx Ultra after Mr Afriyie revealed that he used the antiperspirant to keep cool during the two-hour debate.