The appliance of science lobbying

Community campaigning wins plaudits for helping research dodge CSR bullet. Paul Jump reports

October 28, 2010

The government's apparently last-minute decision to guarantee a flat-cash research budget has been widely hailed as a victory for a coordinated lobbying effort by the science community.

In last week's Comprehensive Spending Review, Chancellor George Osborne announced that he would maintain and ring-fence the UK's annual research spend of £4.6 billion, largely split between the research and funding councils, until 2014-15.

Although this amounts to a real-terms cut of about 9 per cent, it came as a pleasant surprise to many researchers who had been expecting cash-term cuts of up to 15 per cent.

A well-placed source told Times Higher Education that initial plans for a 20 per cent real-terms cut had been abandoned some time ago, but a 13 per cent real-terms reduction was still on the cards until the weekend before the CSR. It was only then that senior ministers made the decision to plough extra funds into research found through a recalculation of Treasury figures.

Many attributed the reprieve to the success of the science community's lobbying efforts. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said that the "fantastic deal" was achieved partly thanks to the hard evidence it had provided to back up its claims about the productivity, excellence and economic value of UK research.

Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, applauded scientists for "coming together from top to bottom" to make the case for investment. He also speculated that Mr Osborne's remark about scientific research being "vital to our future economic success" was a reference to the Science is Vital campaign, which saw hundreds of scientists take to the streets to protest against cuts.

However, Mr Willetts said that he and business secretary Vince Cable had decided from the beginning of CSR negotiations that cutting the teaching budget and increasing graduate contributions was the "least bad" option. This has fuelled suspicions among some observers that large cuts to research were never seriously contemplated, and that the apparent last-minute reprieve - one of several across the government - was planned to generate some good-news stories.

Mr Willetts said that any efficiency savings deriving from the implementation of the Wakeham Review, which suggests that savings of 5 per cent are possible through greater research concentration, would be ploughed back into the research budget. He hoped this would mean that the funding maintained its value in real terms.

However, the research capital budget has not been protected and although some large projects have been shielded, others are likely to be dropped.

Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said that this could hit the Science and Technology Facilities Council particularly hard, since 17 per cent of its budget relates to capital expenditure. He also highlighted the government's pledge to protect the budget of the Medical Research Council in real terms, which was "likely to mean that all the other research councils face falling budgets in cash and real terms".

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