Welcome for capital increase but fears over frozen research spending

The capital budget for science will be increased to £1.1 billion in 2015-16 and maintained in real terms until the end of the decade, the chancellor George Osborne has announced.

June 26, 2013

Speaking to the House of Commons on 26 June, Mr Osborne also committed to maintaining the research budget at £4.6 billion, although this will disappoint those who were hoping to see resource spending increased at least in line with inflation.

The spending round document presented to Parliament shows that the capital budget will increase from £0.6 billion in 2012-13 to £1.1 billion in 2015-16, and increase in line with inflation to 2020-21.

However, the exact boost to capital spending is unclear as the level for 2014-15 is likely to be higher than £0.6 billion, given the £1.4 billion in commitments made by the government since cutting spending on science capital by £1.7 billion in the last spending review. Capital spending on science was £0.9 billion in 2010-11.

The spending round also committed to providing additional resource funding of £185 million for the Technology Strategy Board to support innovation, including Catapult Centres and the Biomedical Catalyst.

The chancellor announced that government would “continue to back” the £200m a year Charity Research Support Fund, which covers the indirect costs of charity-funded research in UK universities.

He has also committed to extending the Research Partnership Investment Fund to 2016-17, making available £160 million of “match funding” to leverage private investment in science infrastructure in collaboration with UK universities.

Specific high-priority projects highlighted in the spending review document as examples of capital spending include funding the Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) and a new supercomputer for the Met Office.

It remains unclear whether the bulk of the investment will be given directly to the research councils to allocate, as before the 2010 spending review, or whether it will be allocated by the department itself. 

Overall capital spending at BIS will rise 9 per cent, having been cut by 44 per cent at the last spending review in 2010.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills faced a 6 per cent cut in departmental spending, one of the lowest of any of the non-protected departments.

But the level of cuts elsewhere across Whitehall will likely also raise questions about the safety of science budgets across government departments outside BIS.

Maintenance of the £4.6 billion annual research funding in 2015-16 in cash terms is likely to be met with mixed reaction.

Across the sector learned societies welcomed the settlement, but reception was more muted than when the cash budget for science was maintained in 2010. 

Stephen Whitehead, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry called the increase in capital spending a decision to “reverse cuts to science infrastructure”.

Sir Peter Knight, president of the Institute of Physics said that the announcement was “a welcome recognition” of the importance of science as an engine for future growth, but noted that inflation had already “substantially eroded” the value of science funding by 2 to 3 per cent a year since the last spending review.

Ahead of the spending review, a survey by the Science Is Vital campaign found that scientific research in the UK had already been harmed by the current spending freeze.

Meanwhile president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Lesley Yellowlees, applauded the chancellor’s long-term view but said the UK needed to see “more comprehensive forward-thinking” if it is to stay ahead in the global economic race.

Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said despite Mr Osborne’s pre-spending review comments that science was a “personal priority”, the research community has ben “left exposed to competition from the global scientific premier league of nations” due to the flat-cash settlement for the non-capital budget.

Research Councils UK’s response was perhaps the most sombre. While welcoming the increase in capital investment, it said the settlement for 2015-16 would “nonetheless present continued challenges to the research community who have already seen very real reductions to research investment over the current spending review period”.

No announcement has yet been made on allocations to individual research councils.

Universities and science David Willetts said the settlement “reflects the vital contribution that science, innovation and higher education make to the UK economy”.

“Increasing capital funding for science and universities will underpin our ambitious industrial strategy, ensure our brightest minds can commercialise their ideas and support the knowledge that drives growth,” he said.

elizabeth.gibney@tsleducation.com

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