Popular discourse has it that public spending on science has been on a downward real-terms trajectory since the incoming coalition government’s spending review in 2010. However, new figures suggest that it is not as simple as that.
The Office for National Statistics’ statistical bulletin UK Government Expenditure on Science, Engineering and Technology, 2013, published last week, reveals that total public spending on R&D declined by £450 million between 2009 and 2010 in 2013 prices, and by a similar amount the following year. However, spending recovered to £10.9 billion in 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available. That figure also happens to be the average annual real-terms spend on R&D since 2002.
The research councils’ budget rose from £2.5 billion to £3.4 billion in real terms between 2002 and 2008 and has held its value since then. Meanwhile, spending by the UK higher education funding bodies has remained largely flat since 2002, rising from £2.1 billion to £2.3 billion between 2002 and 2013.
Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, speaking on behalf of the executive committee of grassroots pressure group Science is Vital (of which he is vice-chair), said that a damaging real-terms fall in the flat-cash resource budget – which funds science projects – was invisible in the figures because of a stream of extra capital investments announced by the chancellor, George Osborne, since 2010.
Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, added that it was arguable the inflation rate for leading-edge science ran above the general inflation rate – although he also noted that “a large part of the cost of research is the human resources, and academic scientists have seen little wage growth over the past few years”.
Spending on research by government departments other than the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has declined steadily in real terms since 2002, from £2.7 billion in 2002 to £1.7 billion in 2013.
It dropped by £300 million between 2009 and 2010, but has since held steady, largely thanks to increases in spending by the Department of Health and the Department for International Development.
However, Dr Flanagan expressed “real concern” about declines “in the traditional areas of major government science and technology spending” by departments such as Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (whose spending fell from £201 million to £141 million between 2009 and 2013), Transport, (£86 million to £44 million) and the Home Office (£48 million to £23 million).
“Quite apart from the often vital public value of such research, done to support policy and regulation”, such departments, he said, are often responsible for “maintaining very important national capabilities that the research councils don’t consistently support”.
The most dramatic fall in R&D spending since 2002 has been at the Ministry of Defence, whose real-terms budget has dropped from £3.6 billion to £1.9 billion in 2009 and £1.5 billion in 2013.
Professor Curry noted that the UK now spends on R&D the lowest proportion of its gross domestic product of all the Group of Eight countries, despite ministers’ regular acknowledgement of the quality of UK science and its contribution to growth.
“Given the evident value of public investment…the question has to be why the government is not seeking to invest more in such a productive sector,” he said.