Research Funding: After the ‘Golden Age’

The policy team yesterday attended a very interesting talk delivered by Professor Adrian Smith, Director General of Science & Research at the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills (DIUS).

He started off on an optimistic note, arguing that the UK research base has been living through a golden age since 2000- government research expenditure, which had been hovering at just under ₤3 billion a year for over 15 years before that date, had grown to well over ₤5 billion a year by 2008. He argued that the results were clear, with the UK still punching well above its weight in world-class research, receiving 12% of world citations despite having only 1% of the world’s population, and remaining the “most productive & efficient’ research nation in the G8.

However, this decade of growth is now at an end, and he highlighted the major implications for the research base. Renewed stress will be placed on demonstrating the value of research to the economy, and the new funding expectations amongst researchers which have developed in the boom times will now have to be replaced by more constrained ambitions. He did note that the ring-fence around science funding had been maintained in the last budget, and explained that lessons had been learnt from the decline of the nuclear research base in the country: research funding cannot simply be switched on and off, as researchers will depart for abroad during any funding break.

His conclusion was that some tensions certainly did exist between funding short-term ‘economy-building’ research and longer-term blue-sky research, and that some prioritisation around areas where the economy can be strengthened was inevitable. He was optimistic however that the argument for longer-term science funding could be successfully made, and felt that policy makers were well aware of the damaging long-term effects and potential brain drain which could result from cutting funding. He concluded that making the argument for the value of scientific research was therefore as important as ever it has been, and told the audience he expected them to be out there making that case.