'Outside the ring-fence, beyond Haldane, the big bucks should stop with the state'

January 31, 2013

The government has a legitimate role in deciding where approximately £1.5 billion of capital funding outside the science ring-fence should be spent, David Willetts has insisted.

Questioned on the government’s decision since the 2010 spending review to allocate capital money directly rather than through the research councils, the universities and science minister said that there had always been a role for the state in decisions on large capital and technology spending. He suggested that it was an arena where the Haldane principle, which says that decisions about research spending should be made by researchers not ministers, did not apply.

“The science ring-fence, which is cash-protected and where, by and large, the Haldane principle applies,…carries on,” he told Times Higher Education.

“This is additional spending where we are taking a strategic view, but it draws on advice from the research councils on the capital needs of the science community, from the Technology Strategy Board on where we’ve got a technology lead,” plus the Government Office for Science.

“It is ultimately these areas where governments do legitimately decide, but drawing on best advice,” the minister added.

The definition of the ring-fenced science budget was changed after the government’s 2010 spending review, with capital spending removed from its protection. Quality-related research spending, which is allocated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, took its place.

Capital spending was cut by an estimated £1.7 billion over the spending review period, according to figures from the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

But since then government investment, which has included £145 million for e-infrastructure and £50 million for the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester, has helped bring levels up to “roughly” where they had been over the previous decade, Mr Willetts said.

He also claimed that spending in 2009-10 had been inflated by projects being brought forward ahead of the 2010 general election.

The minister’s comments came after a speech at the Policy Exchange thinktank on 24 January, during which Mr Willetts outlined how the government planned to spend the £600 million allocated to research in December’s autumn statement.

He said that the funding would be spread across “eight great technologies” - big data, space, robotics and autonomous systems, synthetic biology, regenerative medicine, agri-science, advanced materials and energy - as part of the government’s industrial strategy to “give business the confidence to invest and grow”.

elizabeth.gibney@tsleducation.com.

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