Science prepares to tighten its belt

C&I Issue 21, 2010

The axe has finally fallen. After five months of worrying what the UK coalition government’s Comprehensive Spending Review would mean for the research community the results are out. And researchers have emerged, blinking into the light surprised by what, by most standards, is a last minute reprieve.

Core science funding has been frozen over the course of the spending review, which will run for four years. In real terms this will amount to a funding cut of a little under 10% in the £4.6bn science budget by 2014. However, this is based on the government’s inflation predictions for the next four years and there is no guarantee that it could not increase at a much faster rate, further eroding the cash available for science. The Research Councils will also be expected to find efficiency savings of £324m, which will be ploughed back in the science budget.

There was some good news too for big science projects, with £69m going to the Diamond Light Source facility at Daresbury and a commitment to proceed with the construction of the £220m Centre for Medical Research and Innovation in London (C&I 2010, 13, 6). However, a decision on capital expenditure is still awaited. John Womersley, director of science programmes at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, has warned that swingeing cuts to capital expenditure could result in the mothballing of a major facility.

Infrastructure in universities suffered during the 1980s and early 1990s as funds were cut, explains Ben Martin, professor of science and technology policy studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The end result was that UK scientists fell behind other countries on the uptake of cutting edge scientific instrumentation. Martin worries that capital expenditure will be sacrificed again and that schemes, such as the Joint Infrastructure Fund, set up in 1998 with funds of £750m, will be required for the UK to play catch up again in five years time. ‘At the level of universities, it’s easier to cut capital spending than posts,’ he points out.

Scientists appear to have won their battle with the UK Treasury by painting research as the engine of economic recovery. Laying out the details of the review, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, described universities as ‘jewels in our economic crown’. He went on to say: ‘Britain is a world leader in scientific research. And that is vital to our future economic success.’

Stephen Curry, a structural biologist at Imperial College London, UK, who was part of the Science is Vital campaign, says: ‘It’s really the treasury mandarins that you have to convince so that’s why the case had to be resolutely economic in its focus, even though many scientists would like to advocate the wider benefits to society.’

Science was able to make a more coherent economic case for its importance than it was 20 years ago, according to Diana Garnham, chief executive of the Science Council. This has been down to better data gathering on the contribution science makes to society and the economy and highlighted in publications like the Royal Society’s The scientific century and James Dyson’s Ingenious Britain. Garnham notes: ‘From an industry perspective, there were lots and lots of voices stating that the UK needs to maintain its R&D and that this is one of the major factors why they ar e based here.’

Recent reports have demonstrated the depth of UK science and its presence on the world stage. With less than 1% of the world’s population the UK accounts for 12% of citations and more than 14% of the most highly cited papers. This is despite the UK spending only 1.8% of GDP on R&D, putting it 15th in the world (C&I 2010, 6, 5).

The news was broadly welcomed by scientists and research charities, which had feared deep, extensive cuts to the science budget. Academia had been softened up by talk of departmental budget cuts as high as 25% that could have translated into similar cuts for science spending. As it turned out some government departments were forced to accept cuts of 25%, but core science spending was ringfenced.

The potential scale of the cuts forced scientists, universities and charities to fight a last minute rearguard action as the size of the disaster that looked set to overtake UK science became apparent. In a submission to the Treasury, prior to the spending review, the Royal Society described cuts of 20% in the science budget as ‘game over’ for world class UK science. A 10% cut would have ‘serious consequences’, while a freeze on science funding ‘could be accommodated’, according to the Society.

The threatened cuts resulted in a widely supported campaign, Science is Vital, which mobilised scientists and their supporters all around the country. The campaign encouraged supporters to sign a petition, write to their MPs and culminated in a rally outside the Treasury in London (C&I 2010, 19, 5). When the petition was presented to government, more than 33,000 signatures had been gathered in little more than three weeks. Events like these are credited with raising the profile of science and catapulting it into the public consciousness.

Osborne unveiled total public spending cuts of £81bn over the course of the review, with the intention of reining in the budget deficit of £109bn. As a result, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which has science and research, universities and intellectual property in its brief, faces an annual budgetary cut of 7.1% until 2014.

‘I take heart that the campaign was made not just by Science is Vital, but on a broad front by many interested parties, the universities, the learned societies and the people on the inside, the science advisers, did some sterling work,’ says Curry.

Joanne Lyall, executive director of the Society of Chemical Industry, says: ‘While this still represents a cut in real terms and comes at a time when many countries are making additional investments in research, it is hoped that the UK will continue to play a competitive role in international research endeavour and exploit opportunities for support from industry.’

However, while the UK science budget has been frozen, its competitors are steaming ahead with more investment in science and technology. At the end of 2009, France announced that it would be ploughing €35bn into cutting edge science and technology research. Germany committed to increasing its research spending by €12bn by 2013 and the US also upped its science budget. While the technologically mature countries are shoring up their technology base with additional funding, countries like China and India are rapidly growing their high tech research and manufacturing base. China’s investment in science has been growing at 20%/year for a decade, while the Indian government announced in 2009 that it would be doubling its science funding.

The cost to universities of the spending review is still becoming clear, but they are expected to shoulder 40% of the cuts to BIS’s budget. Higher education funding will be cut from £7.1bn to 4.2bn by 2014. Science, technology, engineering and maths courses are likely to be better protected than others. Universities are expected to contribute to a further cost saving of £162m by 2014 on top of previous savings of £600m (C&I 2010, 6, 5). One thing that is clear, in the wake of the Browne review of university funding, is that students will be expected to help make up the shortfall with higher tuition fees. This could result in fees rising as high as £12,000/ year. With students set to fill the black hole in universities’ finances, Curry says that they will expect more for their money. This will inevitably put more pressure on researchers’ scarce time.

Drastic cuts to university funding in the 1980s led to a ‘missing generation’ of young scientists who left for better research environments and this could happen again, warns Martin. ‘On average [the 1980s] cuts were smaller than those we’re about to see in higher education fund ing,’ he says.

Some universities are likely to be better placed than others to ride out the storm. John Rushforth, deputy vice chancellor at the University of the West of England (UWE), a research intensive former polytechnic, says: ‘We think we are in a strong position given the greater emphasis on the needs of industry, an area where UWE has always excelled. We are already working in innovative ways through the Institute of Bio-Sensing Technology in collaboration with major industry partners like AstraZeneca, QinetiQ and HiMedica.’

The question now facing vice chancellors and senior managers is where can savings be made? Curry says that ther e are efficiencies to be made. He points out that the grant system currently takes up far too much of researchers’ time; applications have a success rate of only 20% – down from 40% in 2003. Reducing researchers’ dependency on grants would free them up for teaching and research, offering universities greater efficiencies and savings.

However, Martin is pessimistic about future hiring. He warns of a multiplier effect of cuts of even 10% because as much as 90% of the money that the Research Councils receive is tied up in projects, leaving little to fund new work. ‘I suspect there will be quite a significant fall in money available to hire new researchers, postdoctoral fellows and other young scientists at early stages in their career. There will be another... “missing generation” that we will come to rue in 10 or 20 years time as we see significantly less hiring.’

Business outlook: how the review will affect industry

The review’s impact on the pharmaceutical and chemical industry was limited, but there were some positives. An annual £200m fund for costly cancer drugs, such as Avastin (bevacizumab) and Herceptin (trastuzumab), which have previously been denied to patients on cost effectiveness grounds, was created.

There was one piece of bad news for industry, with the announcement that the CRC Energy Efficiency scheme would be ‘simplified’. The scheme, which puts a price on carbon dioxide emissions, will no longer be recycling the money paid in back to those companies plus or minus a small bonus or fine if they reduce their energy use. The Chemical Industries Association (CIA) predicts that the industry will be the seventh largest participant in the scheme, although most of its members have exemptions (C&I 2010, 7, 5).

The review also had a green flavour with £1bn put aside for demonstrating carbon capture and storage technology and £200m to support renewable energy technologies, such as off shore wind. Up to £1bn will also be put in a green bank to finance renewable energy projects and other green initiatives. Manufacturing will receive £200m to encourage low carbon technology take up and another £200m has been put aside that will partly finance the creation of high tech innovation centres.

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