Research intelligence - Freeze won't stop bleeding

Willetts vaunts flat-cash victory for science, but research councils still face operating-budget cuts. Paul Jump reports

November 4, 2010

The flat-cash research budget announced in the government's recent Comprehensive Spending Review was widely welcomed, but the details of the settlement suggest that considerable pain is likely to be felt in some quarters.

The £4.6 billion annual research spend will be ring-fenced for the next four years. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has said that a "reasonable challenge" for the research community will be to turn the flat-cash freeze into a real-terms one by delivering the kind of efficiency savings identified in the Wakeham Review.

Mr Willetts is confident that reductions in other government departments' budgets will result in only "modest" falls in the funding available for research in defence and the environment, while the Department of Health's annual £700 million research spend will increase in real terms.

The department will also foot the £220 million bill for the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI) in London, while Mr Willetts' Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has committed to maintaining the budget of the Medical Research Council in real terms.

The additional health funding will be used "to support the translation of research into practical applications". Scientists working in basic research could be forgiven for fearing that they will be squeezed as UK science strives to live up to what some have called its "moral responsibility" to deliver on its rhetoric about being an engine of economic growth.

But at an event at the Royal Institution last week, Colin Blakemore, former chief executive of the MRC, said he believed that the flat-cash settlement proved that the government understood that translational research was not possible without basic research.

Mr Willetts, who also spoke at the event, pledged not to extinguish researchers' freedom to explore the blue-skies work that is "fundamental for long-term gains".

The government was "very close" to being able to deliver on its health- research commitments without "significant distortion" of existing priorities, Mr Willetts said.

Dashed capital

But protecting the MRC budget will entail cash-terms cuts for at least some of the other research councils unless money is diverted to them from the quality-related funding stream.

The councils currently receive £2.8 billion of the research budget, while £1.6 billion goes to QR.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council, whose recent financial travails have been well documented, is likely to be particularly worried, since 17 per cent of its spending comes from the science capital budget, which has not been protected.

Although the future level of this budget is not yet known, the overall annual capital budget for BIS will shrink significantly.

It will range between £800 million and £1.2 billion over the next four years, compared with its current £1.8 billion.

According to Mr Willetts, the UK does not plan to withdraw from any of the international projects to which the STFC contributes, although he pledged to continue efforts to hold down their costs.

Apart from the UKCMRI, the government has also committed to funding the Diamond Light Source, the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge and the Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright.

Mr Willetts hopes that other projects can be announced soon, but has made no promises.

The research councils also face cuts to their administrative budgets in excess of 30 per cent.

"A pound spent on overheads and back-office functions that should be spent on research is a pound wasted, so we are going to be ruthless," Mr Willetts said.

Julia Goodfellow, vice-chancellor of the University of Kent and former chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, said that the councils' back-office costs were already very low.

"Cuts of 30 per cent to the operating budgets are going to mean the councils have to do less, or pass on work to those they fund," she cautioned.

But Mr Willetts hopes that efficiency moves will lift some of the bureaucratic burden on researchers.

"If there is anything we can do, in looking at how the research council grant process and the research excellence framework are handled, to lower the overhead and time costs for the scientific community, that will be a high priority," he said.

Mr Willetts also pledged to make sure the government's immigration cap does not hamper UK universities' ability to recruit the best global research talent.

Dismissing fears that increased levels of research spending in competitor countries would mean that UK research still lost out despite the flat-cash settlement, he said that a lot of the extra spending by other countries came from short-term stimulus packages.

"The fact that (UK) science got this settlement in what was one of the toughest spending negotiations since the (Second World) War must give people confidence about where we would be able to go in the future," the minister said.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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