Research chiefs are bracing themselves for a spending squeeze as the Treasury tightens its belt.
The councils are working on their joint bid for the spending review 2004 but the forecast from the Office of Science and Technology has been described by one senior council source as "gloomy".
It is likely to be a substantially lower settlement than the 2002 review when the UK science budget was given an extra £2.3 billion for 2003-04, rising to £2.9 billion in 2005-06.
Catherine Coates, director of planning and communications at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, chairs a cross-council group on the spending review. She said: "There will be hard decisions to be made, particularly as the spending review is unlikely to be as generous as previous ones."
Pressure group Save British Science warned that research might not be the only area to lose out following a mediocre or reduced settlement for science. SBS director Peter Cotgreave said: "There is fierce global competition for the best scientific brains. Meanwhile, relative to the cost of living, academic salaries here are getting worse."
Some research council members have suggested that cross-council bids will be more likely to win funding in such a difficult climate, but Ms Coates said this was no longer the case.
She said: "The whole arena has moved on. The flavour of the last spending review was all cross-council, partly to make sure the research councils were working together. But now it is more about where the science is going."
Despite the grim outlook the councils are determined to put together the best case for more funding. This will include a pitch for extra money for underpinning research in UK universities.
They will also bid for money to develop four cross-council initiatives launched in the last spending review: sustainable energy; stem cells and regenerative medicine; rural economy and land use; and brain science.
In addition, Research Councils UK has identified eight themes that are likely to be central to its bid (see below).
Individual research councils will also be allowed to include their own priorities in the overall bid. The EPSRC has confirmed it would like more money for the UK fusion programme it runs at Culham. The Medical Research Council may bid for extra funds for clinical research.
Ms Coates said: "We wouldn't want additional money to come with too many ringfences. The councils are better able [than the Treasury] to balance what should go to basic research and what to specific targeted programmes."
- Changing ourselves (lifestyle and genetics)
- Conditions for life
- Creativity and innovation
- Infectious disease
- Personal and national security
- Scales of complexity
- Sustainable water management
- Systems biology