Research intelligence - Tight, but not too austere

The research settlement is sparing with both rises and reductions. Paul Jump reports

January 13, 2011

There were few presents handed out in the government's pre-Christmas announcement of research budget allocations for the coming spending period, but no one ended up with too many lumps of coal.

The government heeded the "strong advice" it had received and broadly maintained the current split of the £4.6 billion annual resource budget, which has been protected in cash terms and ring-fenced for the four years from 2011-12 to 2014-15.

No research council will see its resource budget cut by more than an average of 2.6 per cent compared with 2010-11. The Medical Research Council, whose income the government has promised to protect in real terms, will see an average 1.6 per cent rise: the rest of the shortfall will be made up by the council's income from patents.

Another relative winner is the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which gains significant rises in its budget for international subscriptions and cross-council facilities.

As recommended by Lord Drayson, the previous science minister, the council will be protected against fluctuations in the value of sterling.

It will also escape the worst of the cuts in the research capital budget, which is outside the ring-fence and is expected to fall by an average of 45.7 per cent compared with 2010-11 levels - although figures are not yet finalised beyond 2011-12.

David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, said the scale of capital cuts was a result of the government's decision to "delay capital investment to maximise investment in research projects and in people undertaking research".

The MRC will suffer the biggest capital cut: an average 77 per cent from the 2010-11 baseline. However, its £220 million commitment to the building of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation will be met out of the Department of Health's capital budget.

John Jeans, the MRC's deputy chief executive, also pointed out that the council's capital budget was unusually high this year because of the construction of the new Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. He said the council's standard budget would see a 57 per cent cut in 2011-12, with similar reductions expected in subsequent years.

Although the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council's capital budget will decline by an average of more than 50 per cent, the government has committed to funding its Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright.

Mr Willetts said he hoped later this year to be able to approve a "small number" of other projects on the Large Facilities Roadmap, a priority list agreed by all the councils.

He said the protection of MRC and STFC budgets, as well as the set-up costs of the UK Space Agency, had necessitated an average 3 per cent cut in the quality-related (QR) funding stream, which is administered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

In its grant letter to Hefce, the government states that QR funding should be concentrated on "research centres of proven excellence, with the critical mass to address national challenges and compete internationally and the expertise to collaborate with business".

The government expects pay restraint and the implementation of the Wakeham Review of full economic costing to yield savings of £324 million by 2014-15, which will be recycled into the research resource budget and which Mr Willetts hopes will largely preserve its value in real terms. Allocations for research funders' internal costs will not be announced until later this month, but Mr Willetts has indicated that he expects them to make "efficiency savings" in excess of 40 per cent.

Hefce's capital budget will fall by 46.4 per cent, while the additional higher education research capital allocated by UK country will fall by an average of between 60 per cent (England) and 46.6 per cent (Northern Ireland).

The Higher Education Innovation Fund, which supports knowledge transfer, will be protected in cash terms, but the government wants the funds to go only to the "most effective performers" in terms of interaction with business.

The national academies will receive slightly less, although the budget for the British Academy will rise by just over 2 per cent.

The division of funding between the research councils "took account" of how closely their plans met government priorities such as supporting cross-council research into "strategic national challenges", including energy and climate change.

But the document announcing the budget allocations also contains a "clarification" of the Haldane principle that reaffirms that ministers should keep out of decisions about which specific research projects and individuals to fund. "This has been crucial to the international success of British science," it says.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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