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A crossroads for UK science and research?

9 November 2015
Jamie Arrowsmith

Jamie Arrowsmith

Assistant Director, Policy
Universities UK International
It has been a busy few days in the world of higher education, with the weekend sandwiched rather nicely between the launch of the higher education Green Paper on Friday, and the publication of the Science and Technology committee inquiry into the science budget this morning (for a summary of the Green Paper and its implications, see the blog by UUK’s Director of Policy Chris Hale).

Add in to this mix the forthcoming Spending Review and Sir Paul Nurse’s eagerly anticipated recommendations on the future organisation of the Research Councils, and November starts to look like something of a crossroads for UK science and research.

We know that UK research is amazingly successful, and that universities lie at the heart of this system. As Nicola Blackwood MP (Chair of the S&T committee) puts it, we are ‘a scientific superpower’ – but one that is under increasing pressure.

The success of our system (reaffirmed by Breakthrough Prizes  – the ‘Oscars for science’ – for researchers from UCL and Imperial, announced on Sunday) has been delivered on what amounts to a shoestring budget. We have long invested less as a proportion of GDP than similar economies – both public and private sector investment are worryingly low – and the situation is getting worse. There is a need to reflect on the role we want science and research to play in the UK, and to decide whether we are willing to give it the support that is urgently needed.

It is in this context that the intervention of Ms Blackwood and the S&T committee has been most welcome. While neither the Minister for Universities nor the Treasury have been willing or able to make firm commitments to science funding ahead of the Spending Review, the Committee has been unambiguous. Their report calls for:

  • An ambitious, long-term plan to raise investment in science and research to 3% of GDP (we’re currently hovering around 1.7%)
  • The balance between different elements of the dual support funding system, and the critical features of dual support to be maintained
  • Continuing support for a broad range of innovation activities, rather than focussing solely on catapult centres
  • Greater transparency and accountability on levels of (and changes to) departmental spending on research, development and innovation
  • Better and more transparent use of evidence in policy and decision making
  • Government to exercise caution in any reorganisation of research and innovation funding mechanisms and infrastructure
The report also highlights the ‘farcical’ disconnect between capital and resource commitments that is leading to under-utilisation of world-class facilities, and forcefully argues that further cuts to science and research – or, indeed, another flat cash settlement– would be, as Professor Brian Cox put it, an ‘absolute disaster’.

However, as fanciful as increasing investment may sound in an era where austerity and belt-tightening have been the order of the day, the report argues that this is not just desirable (and indeed sensible) – it is entirely possible. Relative to the totality of government spending the science ring-fence is a drop in the ocean. The Committee argues that a 10% increase in government spending on science could transform our capacity, yet would amount to less than 0.1% of total government expenditure. And all the available evidence suggests that UK science and research is among the most effective and productive systems in the world, and that public funding drives both productivity and economic growth, and leverages greater private investment.

Science is vital. Every extra £1 invested in science and research is money well spent. As Ms Blackwood and the S&T committee have argued, increasing investment in science will not break the budget – but it might just help to transform our future.

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