David Willetts Discusses Science Budget Settlement

Two events attended by the BES Science Policy Team this week saw David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, heartily congratulated by the science community for achieveing a favourable science settlement in the CSR. As announced on 20 October, the science budget will be ring-fenced at a cash value of £4.6 billion for each of the next four years, to 2014.

Science Question Time at the Royal Institution (Tuesday 26 October) saw the Minister joined by Professor Dame Janet Finch, Chair of the Council of Science and Technology; Professor Colin Blakemore, University of Oxford and Philip Greenish, CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering. The event was chaired by Mark Henderson, science reporter for the Times. All around the table thanked the Minister for achieving the settlement he had for science, which will mean a decrease in real terms of 10% on the current science budget over the next four years, due to inflation. Willetts made it clear that this would mean tough choices for science, outlining four main challlenges which lie ahead:

– How the science budget can move to a stable resource in ‘real’, not cash, terms. This will need to be achieved through efficiency savings, as identified in the Wakeham report, and every pound saved will be a pound that stays within the science budget to re-invest in research.

– The balance between fixed international subscriptions and the capital budget. Willetts said that ‘when you juggle this, the variable tends to be people’, and identified a major challenge around science career planning. It won’t be possible for all those who’ve piled into science research in the past few years to progress to professorships, Willetts said. These scientifically qualified people need to understand the other avenues open for them outside science.

– Excellence across the research base: to what extent should funding be concentrated, on subjects and in institutions? To what extent should clusters be formed, with others doing excellent research?

– Collaboration alongside competition: how can this be fostered and barriers overcome?

During a wide ranging discussion following speeches from each of the panellists, a key point to emerge was the expectations which Government would place on the scientific community as a result of the favourable settlement. Treasury expected to see economic returns through its investment in science, and science researchers would need to consider carefully how money was spent. Willetts was urged to recognise the value of blue-skies research as a fundamental underpinning to applied studies.

Willetts gave the address to the annual lunch of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee yesterday, again receiving thanks from those present for his negotiating efforts. He stated much the same as on the previous evening but also commented on how important it was that the Houses of Commons and Lords had proper access to science advice. 65 MPs had sat in Parliament before this year’s election, and, Willetts said, 65 were present now, stating that this should dispel any pessimistic comments about a decline in interest in science amongst parliamentarians. Responding to the Minister’s speech, Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Committee, called on Learned Societies and others to do more to engage with parliament, and with the public, particularly in relation to early years science education.

Overall, the science community seems pleased and pragmatic about the settlement for science, although there is no doubt that tough times do lie ahead. The Minister commented at the RI on Tuesday that at least, with the settlement he has secured, the Government and scientists can tackle them together ‘in an atmosphere of mutual trust and co-operation’.