Science and Technology Committee Call for Spend on Science to Increase

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has called for the Government to increase spend on science in order to ensure that the UK can remain competitive and an attractive place to both research and invest in science and technology. In a report published yesterday, the result of the Committee’s inquiry into ‘the impact of spending cuts on science and scientific research’, Committee members call for the Government to veto any potential cuts to the science budget, or face ‘seriously damaging’ consequences for the sector.

The Pre-Budget Report of 9 December 2009 announced that £600 million would be cut from the higher education and science and research budgets, “from a combination of changes to student support within existing arrangements; efficiency savings and prioritisation across universities, science and research; some switching of modes of study in higher education; and reductions in budgets that do not support student participation”. The Committee conclude that the figure of £600 million is an arbitrary one, imposed by Treasury, with no clarity about how it was generated. It is also not yet clear where these cuts will fall.

In addition, the funds allocated by HEFCE to universities in England will fall in the 2010-11 financial year, by 6.5% compared to the allocation in 2009-10. Within the overall HEFCE budget, allocations to individual institutions were announced a couple of weeks ago. Against this background of cuts already announced is the very real concern amongst researchers and others in higher education that further cuts are to come. The current Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR 2007) expires in 2010-11, with funding beyond March 2011 contingent upon a new Budget and CSR. In evidence given to the Science and Technology Committee, the Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Paul Drayson, said, “my lack of comfort is due to the fact that I am arguing very strongly for the figure for the future overall research budget… The argument is still to be made and won.”

As well as concluding that overall cuts to the science budget are unsustainable in terms of building the UK’s ‘knowledge economy’, relying on a supply of scientifically qualified teachers, researchers and an attractive research environment to business and industry, the inquiry touches upon plans in the new Research Excellence Framework to assess the ‘impact’ of researchers’ work. The Committee also examine the separate push by the Research Councils to ask researchers to consider the impact of their work when applying for grants. The Committee conclude that assessing impact retrospectively as part of the REF, whilst a commendable idea, is not feasible in practice and that difficulties in doing this will prove ‘insurmountable’. However, members do support the Research Councils requirement for researchers to consider how they might open up ‘pathways to impact’ through their research and call upon the Research Councils to clarify their requirements. There is a perception in the scientific community that researchers are being asked to ‘predict’ the impact of their research; a charge which the Research Councils dispute and on which the Committee call for clarification to correct this misinformation.

Overall, the report echoes other recent publications calling for stability, and an increase, in science spending during a period of fiscal tightening, such as the Royal Society’s ‘Scientific Century’ and the Council for Science and Technology’s recent ‘Vision for UK Research‘ report. Today’s budget announcement will be an interesting test of whether HM Treasury has got the message.