Speaking at Chatham House’s Investing in Science: Securing Future Prosperity conference in London on 23 November, Professor Cox, who holds a chair in particle physics at the University of Manchester and whose television appearances have given him a broad public profile, said funders should avoid reacting to a relatively small real-terms cut in the research budget by concentrating resources on a smaller number of research areas.
“We have to consider the possibility that we have got things about right in this country,” he said. “Radical change could potentially be extremely dangerous. Given that the stakes are so high and the amount of money being invested [in each discipline] is so small, you have to be extremely careful before you think, ‘We’ve got a flat-cash settlement so we have to pull out of that discipline’.”
He said the research budget should have been doubled in the Comprehensive Spending Review and that the flat-cash settlement had introduced “artificial” pressures on funding.
“To suggest we can no longer afford to work across the science base is wrong,” Professor Cox said. “My worry is with [real-terms] cuts you get competing interests and false distinctions between blue-skies and applied research, and the voices around the ears of ministers get louder and louder and [ministers] can make ridiculous decisions.”
He said he was aware of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s argument that, in the wake of the CSR, more funding needed to be focused on applied research, but described it as “a policy-driven, short-term response to a funding situation I would hope would improve”.
Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat MP and science spokesman, agreed that “budget shaving” may be preferable to running the risk of “making the wrong call” on what to cut.
But Richard Parker, director of research and technology for the Rolls-Royce Group, said he feared a “salami-slicing” of the research budget.
“We need to focus on excellence and to strengthen our science and engineering research base. We have a habit of being laissez-faire about these things: people say if you manage [things] too closely you don’t get curiosity-driven research. But [funding] should be more focused. They do it in other countries and sometimes they try to pick winners.”
Adrian Smith, director general of knowledge and innovation at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, pointed out that Vince Cable, the business secretary, had pledged that there would be no salami-slicing of the research budget. He said the details of the research budget allocations would be announced in the middle of December.