Science Minister underlines importance of the EU at CaSE Annual Lecture

By Ben Connor, Policy Officer

At Wednesday’s Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) Lecture, Science Minister Jo Johnson gave a strong endorsement of the importance of European Union membership for UK science. Concluding a speech outlining the Government’s vision for science, he argued that “while there is nothing in our EU membership that limits our ability to work with other countries, the onus is now on those who want to leave the EU […] to explain how they would sustain current levels of investment and collaboration.”

In the storied surrounds of the Royal Institution, the Minister addressed an audience of 400 representatives of the scientific community, outlining his laudable aim to “make Britain the best place in the world for science, engineering and innovation”. Yet he clearly acknowledged that this goal was not something the UK could achieve in isolation, emphasising the vital importance of international partnerships to scientific research. He pointed to the UK’s success in obtaining EU research funding, also highlighting the value of free movement for researchers and students, and the fact that research publications involving international collaboration – as over 50% of UK papers do – have much greater impact.

In the autumn Spending Review, scientific research funding was protected in real terms, to rise with inflation over the course of this Parliament. This was a broadly positive settlement in the context of significant spending cuts across government; a point the Minister was keen to stress. In his speech he also made two new funding announcements: doubling the Newton Fund for international research to £150 million per year by 2021, and launching a new £30 million Science Capital Fund for science centres in partnership with the Wellcome Trust. He also reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to implementing Sir Paul Nurse’s recommendation to improve research co-ordination through the creation of Research UK.

Yet the funding and organisation of scientific research – policy for science – is just one part of science policymaking. Science for policy­ – making sure decision-makers are equipped with the right scientific evidence for making decisions, is also crucial, and the Science Minister is responsible for managing the relationship with the Government Office for Science, which aims to deliver this goal. Yet while the “science budget” has been reasonably well protected by the current Conservative government and its Coalition predecessor, departmental budgets for “science for policy” have been subject to substantial cuts.

Analysis by CaSE in 2014 showed that in 2011/12 half of Government departments cut research and development expenditure by over 20% compared to the previous year, often out of proportion to their overall spending reductions. So in the Q & A session after the CaSE Lecture, we asked the Minister how he will support Government departments across the board to retain their capacity to generate and use scientific evidence to best inform policy decisions.

In response he assured us, and the audience, that the Government has set up a structure to monitor departmental science spending, with the Chief Scientific Advisor playing an important role, and able to step in if departments are making excessive cuts that threaten their scientific capacity. Yet while the existence of this structure is welcome, the scale of cuts to departments such as Defra – which has lost roughly £1 billion from its budget since 2010, and will be subject to a further 15% reduction over the course of the Parliament – has inevitably led to the loss of important research projects.

In the context of this funding pressure, Professor Ian Boyd, Defra’s Chief Scientific Advisor, has outlined in the department’s Evidence Strategy the need for “greater participation from, and collaboration with, external partners and providers of evidence” to inform government policy. With their role in synthesising and communicating evidence, as well as advocating for government investment in research, it is clear that learned societies such as the BES have an increasingly important role to play in this collaborative endeavour.