Pit science capital against other spending, peers told

Science should be able to bid against other spending areas such as road-building for capital investment, the chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council has argued.

June 25, 2013

John Womersley made the suggestion today at the Lords Science and Technology Committee’s hearing on scientific infrastructure.

The hearing was held to examine the effect of the removal of capital funding from the science ring-fence at the 2010 spending review, and the 40 per cent cuts to which it was subjected at the same time.

Graeme Reid, head of research funding at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, told the hearing that subsequent announcements of extra capital funding for science meant that, in reality, spending had only been 6 per cent less than pre-spending review levels. He also suggested that using a greater proportion of the research budget on infrastructure would inflict unacceptable damage on the rest of science spending.

But Professor Womersley argued that new science facilities should not necessarily have to be funded by BIS. Rather, proposals should be “tensioned” against other capital spending priorities such as in transport, energy and regional development.

“You would be tensioning the economic benefits of a science facility against that of a bypass or other things that could be done to attract investment in that area,” he said.

“I think science would stack up very well if you took a sufficiently long-term view…because the UK is very good at science and we have to position ourselves as a knowledge economy in the long term,” he said.

Professor Womersley welcomed the extra capital funding provided since 2010, but regretted the often strict limitations placed on the time period over which it could be spent.

David De Roure, professor of e-research at the University of Oxford, also complained about the haste with which institutions were expected by politicians to come up with projects to fund when new money was found.

“For some of the things we want to achieve in terms of having the best infrastructure for the best ideas and the best science we need more time to build partnerships and co-production. The fact that we have to find proposals in the top drawer with three weeks’ notice is really quite restrictive,” he said.

Professor Womersley also noted that the extra capital funding did not come with funding for running costs, while ministers’ “very natural” desire to use the money to fund new projects promising “transformative change” meant it was often hard to find funds to maintain existing infrastructure.

“What we used to fund out of the ring-fenced component of [the] capital [budget] included boring things like repairing the roof on the office building,” he said.

He added that the long timescales involved in developing and operating large facilities meant there was a “very strong case” for reincorporating science capital funding into the ring fence, and for providing long-term funding commitments that went beyond single spending periods.

“I don’t want to imply we are wasting money in any way… But the STFC’s science board gives advice on a 10-year programme [that will] deliver science into the 2030s and I would like some ability to plan on those kinds of timescales,” he said.

“But I am aware of the economic situation we are in and the priority of the government to promote jobs and growth, so we have to make the case that investment in basic science [delivers] exactly that. Simply being a science priority isn’t enough by itself.”

The hearing comes just a day before George Osborne, the chancellor, announces the government’s spending plans for the 2015-16 financial year.


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