Science & Environment

Science spend 'vital for economy'

Stem cell research
Image caption UK government spend on operational science is about 4.6bn a year

The UK scientific community has issued a broadside to the government, warning it not to cut the science budget.

Ministers are due to announce their spending plans for the next four years on 26 June.

The public research budget was frozen when the coalition came to power in 2010, but inflation has eroded its value by 10% since.

Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, said that depressing funding still further would damage the economy.

"Science is the seedcorn of growth," he told reporters. "You do not burn the seedcorn when you are in a difficult situation; you preserve it and that's our message to government."

The Nobel Prize winner was speaking at London's Science Media Centre where science academy and charity leaders had gathered to state the case for a good settlement at the end of the month.

'Public expectation'

Sir John Tooke, the president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said no-one should doubt the benefits that accrue both to the economy and to public health from investment in medical research.

He cited the examples of MRI scanners, the novel drugs now based on monoclonal antibodies and the new DNA technologies being used for diagnosis - all UK developments that are saving lives and earning money for UK PLC.

The challenges of the coming decades required further investment, he said, and highlighted the growth in dementia (1.5 million patients by 2030) and the rise in antibiotic resistance.

"To rise to those challenges, we must preserve a fragile and interdependent ecosystem involving academia, the NHS, industry and the charitable sector; and recognise that if we disturb one element, the whole potential is at risk."

And Sir John continued: "Inadequate investment or uncertainty would lead to loss of leverage funding from charity, from overseas, and from [the pharmaceutical industry]. 'Pharma' contributes some £5 for every £1 of public investment that's made in health research. We would also lose talented mobile researchers to other economies, and there would be a decline in medical innovation, resulting in a failure to match public and patient expectation."

Money for labs

The science leaders said UK research funding had fallen behind that of major competitors in recent years.

Public science spending currently runs at about 0.65% of GDP, compared with an average of 0.8% for the G8 nations.

China is aiming to spend 2.5% of its GDP on research by 2020, South Korea is targeting 5% by 2022 and Brazil 2.5% by the same year.

Compared to the OECD group of developed nations, Britain's science spend is 7th in absolute terms but only 25th in percentage terms.

The UK government's science budget is handled by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), and is divided between operational (money for day-to-day research) and capital funding (the cost of the laboratory infrastructure).

Operational spending presently runs at about £4.6bn a year, a sum that is ring-fenced but which is eroded by inflation.

Capital spending was deeply cut in 2010 but then mostly restored by a series of initiatives adding up to a total of £1.35bn.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case) estimates that a shortfall of just over £300m still remains.

Case and its supporters say the fact that the capital budget is not ring-fenced impedes long-term planning and investment, and they worry it may be targeted again when the spending review is announced on 26 June.

Museum status

The status of the UK's leading science museums is also currently in the news.

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Media captionIan Blatchford discusses the status of the SMG with Jonathan Amos

The Science Museum Group (SMG), which runs four centres across the country including the flagship Science Museum in South Kensington in London, says it has been told to prepare for a 10% cut by the ministry that oversees it - the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Director Ian Blatchford said that such a cut would force him to close one of the northern museums in the group's portfolio.

"One of our regional museums will shut, the exhibition programme will be completely destroyed and we will make massive educational cuts which is the very reason that we exist," he said.

A spokesman for the Department for Culture Media and Sport said it was an "operational issue" for the SMG.

On the wider funding issue for science, a spokesman for BIS said: "We cannot anticipate the outcome of the spending review, which will determine levels of future funding. However, the whole coalition recognises that universities and research, and the knowledge and skills they produce, are vital for economic growth.

"That's why we have protected the £4.6bn ring-fenced science and research budget since 2010 and announced an extra £1.5bn on science capital since."

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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