The Spending Review: what does it mean for ecology and ecologists?

Today the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has announced the government’s Spending Review and Autumn Statement, the first since the General Election in May returned a Conservative majority administration. While the Autumn Statement – an update to the government’s financial plans in between budgets – occurs annually, the Spending Review occurs only at the start of a Parliament, and will set out spending plans for the next five years.

According to the Treasury, the Spending Review outlines how £4 trillion of government funds will be spent on public services. As part of this, the government determines the amount of money allocated to each department over the course of the Parliament; budgets that since 2010 have mostly seen significant cuts. Decisions taken as part of the Spending Review will have major impacts on government policy over the next five years.

So what were the most significant announcements in this year’s Spending Review for the ecological community? There are two areas of policy of major interest to ecologists: scientific research funding, and environmental policy (mostly delivered through Defra). Overall, the Spending Review contained slightly fewer cuts to public spending than many expected, due to better than anticipated figures on tax receipts and debt repayments.

Scientific Research Funding

In terms of research funding, the take-home headline from today’s announcement is a positive one: the science budget of £4.7 billion will be protected in real terms, rising by over £500 million by the end of the Parliament. This represents a real improvement from the last Parliament, when the science budget received a “flat cash” settlement, with funding maintained but not increasing with inflation. However, this budget includes a new £1.5 billion Global Challenges fund, “to ensure UK science takes the lead in addressing the problems faced by developing countries whilst developing our ability to deliver cutting-edge research”: will this lead to other areas of research funding being cut?

Other significant science and higher education policy announcements included:

  • The implementation of the recommendations of the Nurse Review of the Research Councils, which recommended the creation of a new body, Research UK to provide strategic direction, cross-Government and cross-sector co-ordination for research. Individual Research Councils would report into Research UK, but would retain their autonomy in a manner akin to “different faculties within universities”. Innovate UK will also be integrated into Research UK, to build on links between the research and business communities.
  • Maintenance of the science capital funding commitment of £6.9 billion between 2015-2021.
  • A review of the Research Excellence Framework in order to “examine how to simplify and strengthen funding on the basis of excellence”.
  • An increase in financial support for postgraduate students, with loans available to all postgraduates under the age of 60 from 2016-17, new part-time maintenance loans and tuition loans for students wishing to do a second degree in a STEM subject.

Environmental Policy

Defra will see a significant budget cut of 15% over the course of the Parliament, still substantially less than many commentators anticipated. These cuts are to be delivered through an “ambitious efficiencies programme”, with increased sharing of back office functions across its many agencies. Little detail is available at this stage as to how these savings will impact on organisations such as Natural England and the Environment Agency.

The departmental settlement includes:

  • Protection of flood defence funding, including the £2.3 billion capital investment programme.
  • Over £130 million capital investment in Defra’s science estates and equipment, prioritising animal and plant disease prevention capacity, and the 25-year strategy to eradicate bovine TB. The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) will receive £5 million funding to improve its headquarters in Lowestoft, with the possibility of further investment.
  • No repeat of previous plans to privatise the public forest estate, with funding protected and over 11 million trees to be planted over the course of the Parliament.
  • Funding for National Parks and Areas of outstanding Natural Beauty protected, with National Parks “given legal flexibilities to allow them to build sustainable, long-term revenue streams and boost growth in rural areas.”

The Spending Review provides an outline of the government’s spending plans for the next five years, but remains inevitably high-level. As the new Conservative government beds in, the last few months have seen a raft of policy announcements in both science and environmental policy, from the 25-year plan for the environment to the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework, and it will take time for the impact of these new policies and spending plans to be fully revealed.