Scientists feel pinch despite R&D plenty

‘Stable’ figures raise question: where has the money gone?

September 19, 2013

Source: Getty

Poverty in midst of plenty: the dynamism of UK science may explain the sense of retrenchment

Questions have been raised about how government research spending reaches universities in light of figures suggesting that funding levels have not been eroded as badly as many feared.

Taking into account inflation and capital spending cuts, civil spending on research and development fell by 3.7 per cent between 2009-10 and 2011-12, analysis by Times Higher Education shows (see table below).

But a comparison with the previous year (before some funding council spending was brought forward, boosting 2009-10 figures) shows that overall R&D expenditure increased by 2 per cent.

The figures do not include defence funding (of which less than 1 per cent is spent in higher education), which fell by almost 39 per cent between 2008-09 and 2011-12.

The relatively stable top line of funding for university research raises questions about why so many academics have felt a marked squeeze in their finances since the coalition’s “flat cash” research allocation in 2010.

Andrew Steele, a member of the executive committee for the campaign group Science is Vital, said the figures were somewhat surprising, but the complicated way money was moved around made it hard to work out where the funding had gone.

A breakdown of Science, Engineering and Technology Statistics 2013, published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on 11 September, shows that in real terms research council funding in 2011-12 fell from 2010-11 levels but remained on a par with 2008-09, when funding was already £500 million higher than four years earlier.

R&D outlay: real-terms government spending (£m)

Over the same period, spending through the higher education funding councils fell by 5 per cent while net spending through government departments rose.

Research funding at the Department for Education, the Department for Transport and the Home Office was the worst affected by cuts, falling by around 50 per cent on 2009-10 levels. However, this was masked by a more than £350 million spending increase by BIS – largely a result of funding transfers from research councils and other departments, as well as a £40 million boost for the Technology Strategy Board.

A report by Science is Vital in June found the “widespread view” that the ability of UK scientists to perform excellent research had been impaired significantly since 2010.

Dr Steele said that one explanation could be that scientific materials and infrastructure were subject to higher than average levels of inflation. He also warned that inflation post-2011-12 will continue to eat into the flat-cash research settlement.

Kieron Flanagan, lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, said another reason for the science community’s feelings of retrenchment might be the nature of UK research itself.

“The strengths of the system, being dynamic and competitive, also mean it’s responsive to changes in …the way funding is spent,” he said.

Small changes, such as a greater concentration of funding or changes in the way capital is allocated, “can have huge impacts”, as could small fluctuations in the way research council cash is allocated, he added.

Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said that while funding stability was welcome, the situation fell short of the ambitious growth CaSE has advocated, generating economic recovery through the UK’s strengths in science and engineering.

“In the same release of statistics, we are reminded that the UK remains doggedly in the bottom half of the league table of G7 nations on a number of indicators…in R&D,” she said.

Dr Flanagan added that UK research would benefit from long-term funding and a clear message from the government about where its money would be spent.

“We’re looking at fluctuations in a spreadsheet and trying to interpret what the policy is in the long and medium term. It would be good to hear that laid out,” he said.

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