Paul Nurse: government would be ‘Neanderthals’ to cut research budget

Nobel prizewinner makes comments in run-up to November spending review

September 29, 2015

Government ministers would be “Neanderthals” to make major cuts to the science budget over the next five years, according to the president of the Royal Society.

The Nobel prizewinner Sir Paul Nurse made the comments this morning at a briefing for journalists as lobbying intensifies ahead of the government's spending review, set to be published on 25 November.

Non-protected government departments have been asked to model substantial cuts of up to 40 per cent to their budgets ahead of the review. Asked what he expected the settlement would be, Sir Paul claimed he had no personal insight into the decision but added: “I simply think that a 25 to 40 per cent reduction in funds is unacceptable, and nobody but Neanderthals would think about cutting the science budget by that much”.

Cuts of this magnitude would “destroy the scientific endeavour”, he warned.

“It’s my own personal view that the government is not considering such cuts to science. It’s only my view, I don’t have any inside information, but I don’t think they’re that foolish,” he continued.

Asked which minister his Neanderthals comment was aimed at, he later said: “I don’t think for the record that our government is made of Neanderthals.”

At the briefing organised by the Science Media Centre in London, Sir Paul – who is currently leading a review into the operations of the research councils – argued that in the UK only 0.49 per cent of gross domestic product is spent on publicly funded science, one of the lowest figures among advanced nations.

“We are calling on the government, during the next five years…to increase spending on science from that 0.49 per cent to 0.67 per cent, which is still only the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] average. We are only asking for the average to be reached over a five-year period,” he said.

Over the past five years research funding has been held constant in cash terms. This “flat cash” settlement has produced a “logjam” in science, Sir Paul said. “If you have flat cash and you’re trying to protect areas it’s very difficult to move into new areas.”

Asked whether a continuation of flat cash would be acceptable, he responded that it would not be “sufficient”.

Given that he had suggested that cuts of 25 to 40 per cent would make government ministers Neanderthals, Sir Paul joked that five more years of flat cash would be merely worthy of the label “Homo habilis” – another extinct species of human. 

david.matthews@tesglobal.com

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