Autumn Statement 2013: what’s in it for science?

In today’s Autumn Statement, George Osborne reiterated that ‘science was a personal priority’. Announcing the development of a Higgs centre for physics in Edinburgh, and the promise of a Science and Innovation Strategy for the Autumn Statement 2014, there were a handful of indicators of a focus on science as a key part of the UK’s economy.

Scientific research funding is administered by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Spending for research for the period 2011-2015 was announced in 2010. After fearing large cuts in research funding, a successful campaign by the scientific community played a key part in freezing the science budget at £4.6 billion per year. The government also committed to protect the funding against future pressures as part of a ‘ring-fence’.

The Autumn Statement documents reveal that BIS’s budget has been cut by £157m in 2014-15 and £148m in 2015-16. It is not yet clear where these cuts fall, but a leaked memo from BIS last month highlighted that the commitments set out in 2010 may not be kept.

Any reduction in science budgets is especially worrying for ecology – a science which relies on long-term projects and datasets to provide accurate analysis and evidence for high-level environmental decisions. The centres run by the Natural Environment Research Council, such as the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, are key in providing the infrastructure and support for specialist expertise to enable long-term projects to go ahead.

It is vital that ecological studies are protected from short-term changes presented by cuts in science funding. Many of the long-term monitoring projects funded through NERC have been running for decades – the National Riverflow Archive has entries dating back to 1841. The data from these unique projects is consistent and freely available, enabling us to improve our understanding of the natural world in addition to allowing policy decisions to be made quickly and cost-effectively due to the immediate availability of evidence.

Concerns over the future of scientific funding follow on from the recently released House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report on scientific infrastructure in the UK. The report details how the government needs to act to ensure that the UK continues to be a forerunner in scientific research. As mentioned in our previous blog, Public Sector Research Institutions, such as the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the other NERC research centres, were also noted to be underfunded and suffering in their ability to meet national objectives. Ensuring that these centres are supported in terms of funding and governance is important to ensure their future outputs are not put at risk.

The potential cuts to the science budget were picked up by the committee this week when the Chair, Lord Krebs, wrote to David Willetts to urge him ‘not to jeopardise the strength of the UK’s science base’ by diluting the science budget. He stated: ‘Such an action would severely compromise the concept of ring-fencing and send a confusing signal to the science community.’

We wait to hear the finer details of the BIS budget cuts, and hope that the government continues to back their commitment to a long-term strategic plan for science.