Q&A: Science in the Spending Review

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Some observers say that PhD places could be reduced next year

The budget for UK science was announced on Wednesday as part of the Spending Review.

Q: What has happened to the science budget?

The nominal budget for science has been ring-fenced, to be held fixed for the next four years at a value of just over £4.6bn.

Q: If the science budget is frozen over the next four years, why is this being regarded as a cut?

Because inflation devalues the pound each year, the cost of the research will increase. But since the money to pay for it will remain the same, it is functionally a reduction in the budget. The Treasury estimates that this amounts to a real terms cut of just under 10% over the four years.

Q: So there will be less money for science, overall. How will the shortfall be overcome?

This remains unclear, though "efficiency savings" has been mentioned a number of times.

"Building on the Wakeham Review of science spending, we have found that within the science budget significant savings of £324m can be found through efficiency," the Chancellor said.

In a briefing following the announcement, Science Minister David Willetts said that administration of the research councils would be a particular target.

"A pound spent on overhead, on back office functions that should be spent in scientific research is a pound wasted, so we're going to be ruthless on the back office," he said.

Q: Yet the science budget has done relatively well relative to other departments, which have been cut much more. Why?

In the chancellor's words, "when money is short we should ruthlessly prioritise those areas of public spending which are most likely to support economic growth, including investments in our transport and green energy infrastructure, our science base and the skills and education of citizens".

Normally, science spending does not have such a high profile when the chancellor sets out the Government's plans. This year, however, it is high on the political radar because strong representations have been made by the scientific community about what they have described as "long-term and irreversible" damage to the UK economy if there are deep cuts to research funding.

Q: How is the scientific community reacting?

Many scientists reacting to the cuts have been positive that they were not nearly as severe as they were rumoured to be; some had speculated on cuts as high as 25%.

But there is concern that the UK is cutting its science spending when competitor nations are increasing theirs.

"Even at about 10% down, we'll be playing catch-up in an international field which could see UK science left behind," said Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation.

Further, as Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science points out, it remains unclear how the "efficiency savings" of £324m will be achieved.

"Nor is it clear how the spending of the higher education funding councils on research will be affected by cuts in support for universities. Until these issues are clarified, we cannot be sure that the UK's world class research base will be safe," he said.

Q: What does the science budget consist of?

Science Minister David Willetts stressed that the exact breakdown had not yet been decided but said that the rough numbers would include:

  • £2.75bn for research councils
  • £1.6bn in "QR" funding that is to go directly to universities based on the quality of their research
  • £100m for national academies such as the Royal Academy of Engineering

Q: How exactly will that money be distributed among universities, research councils, international projects, and so on?

Much of this is yet to be determined, beyond broad brushstroke statements about what issues are considered by the Government to be important.

How funds will be divided among the research councils, for example, remains undecided, as does the future of UK collaboration in international projects such as the Large Hadron Collider.

Two projects will definitely carry on: the Diamond Light Source synchrotron in Oxford and the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (the latter secured with the benefit of a committed £200m from the Department of Health).

Q: How many jobs will be lost?

It is too soon to tell, but an initial assessment by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case) suggests there will be significant decreases in new research staff entering science and engineering. Case says that PhD places could fall by up to a tenth next year.

Q: What happens next?

Distributing the new budget among the UK's seven research councils over the next few weeks in a series of meetings between each research council head and the director-general for science and research, Adrian Smith.

This will almost certainly involve vigorous arguments about the proportion of the cuts each research council should bear.

Professor Smith will follow a strategic guide issued by the Treasury which sets out in broad terms the government's priority areas for research spending. These are likely to include wealth creation and the delivery of a low carbon economy.

Q: So there will be winners and losers among the research councils?

Yes. The Chancellor has already said that the Medical Research Council will have its funding maintained in real terms - this inevitably means that there will be less to go round the other research councils.

One research council that is particularly vulnerable, however, is the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which funds large test facilities and pays for the UK's involvement in international collaborations such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), astronomy programmes like the European Southern Observatory, and so on.

Until the level of capital funding is determined and the allocations are decided there's a risk that STFC may have to withdraw from a major programme. Alternatively, it would have to cutback or close one of its research institutes.