Treasury bias clouds blue-skies science

May 21, 2004

Leading scientists are worried that some areas of research will be left out in the cold if the Treasury selects particular fields to be financially rewarded in its ten-year plan for science.

Clinical medicine and energy have emerged as the two areas likely to benefit from a boost in funding in the government's science review, government sources have revealed.

Senior sources close to the review told The Times Higher that the Chancellor would be looking for high-profile "good news stories" when he announces the conclusions of the exercise in early July.

One high-level scientist said this might place the Office of Science and Technology in a difficult position when it came to distribute money to its research councils.

The scientist said: "The big worry is that the money for the spending review might come with various very firm demands from the Treasury about how it should be allocated and without a serious uplift in the overall science budget."

A leading biologist said: "Dave King (the government's chief scientific adviser) is very much concerned with energy, and energy research has suffered hugely in the past so this is a good emphasis. But there's a real threat that basic bioscience will get a difficult ride."

Peter Cotgreave, director of campaign group Save British Science, said:

"The Treasury has yet to really understand the value of blue-skies research, so they believe in picking winners much more strongly than the OST or the funding councils do. That's a danger."

But the Treasury this week stressed that it would be up to the OST, which oversees the country's seven research councils, to decide where any new money for research should be allocated.

The Treasury review team is now considering the 200 responses to its consultation on the ten-year investment framework. It is also conducting one-to-one meetings with senior figures including heads of the research council Hazel Jeffery, head of planning and evaluation at the Natural Environment Research Council, said the councils were hoping for a "modest but real increase" in the science budget for the next spending review period.

A senior research council figure said: "There's a lot to play for. All the research councils have pet projects that have been encouraged in talks, but no one has a cheque yet."

The source added that the Treasury was having to balance the demands of investing in the long-term sustainability of science in general as well as investing in specific areas of science.

In its submission to the Treasury's consultation, the Royal Society stresses that a ten-year framework should avoid any temptation to prioritise specific areas of research. Instead it calls on the Treasury to address science recruitment problems.

Lord May, president of the society, told a parliamentary meeting this week:

"One aim, if not the most important aim, of such a framework must be to ensure that we continue to produce successive generations of highly skilled, innovative and creative individuals to drive forward the cutting edge of science."

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