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Making the most of a national asset

19 October 2015
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As the government carries out its Comprehensive Spending Review, Professor Graeme Reid discusses the research funding policies and structures that underpin the UK’s world-leading science and research base.

Building on the best


The recent British Council analysis of past Nobel Prize winners, not to mention the international league tables, reminds us that the UK research base is a wonderful success story. Our science and research is admired around the world.

This success can be traced to sound judgements on science and research by successive governments. One in particular was pivotal: the decision by the then Conservative government to ring fence the science budget more than 20 years ago. Successive administrations since then have maintained the ring fence. Universities UK’s Chief Executive, Nicola Dandridge and I emphasised the importance of this policy in recent evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee’s inquiry into the science budget.

The ring fence gives the research base stability and enables long term planning. It signals to businesses and charities that public funding will be sustained and predictable, giving them the confidence to continue investing in partnership with government and universities. Indeed, nearly 200 of the largest charitable and private sector funders of life sciences research in the UK have already signalled that their substantial investment is at risk if taxpayer support for science and research falls. The UK does not have a right to this investment; businesses and charities choose to invest in this country because we have world-class research.  Global investment can – and will – relocate to take advantage of the best environment.

Smart and strong


Support for peer-reviewed excellence and the Haldane principle have combined with the ring fence to give the UK an unusually effective method of funding research. Unlike many other public funding streams, R&D expenditure is meritocratic and politically independent. The scientific community selects what and who to fund. Government has an important role in identifying areas of strategic importance and in deciding major areas of capital investment. But at an operational level, prioritisation is left to scientists and based on research excellence as assessed by peers. Strong competition for research funding together with this ruthless meritocracy has driven up quality and efficiency to the very highest levels in the world.

This brings us to a third key decision by successive governments: allocating science budget funding through the dual support system, combining block grants based on past performance with competitive awards based on future potential. The dual support system, with its combination of incentives, enables the research base to pursue a balance of fundamental and applied research, short- and long-term priorities, and foster broad-based excellence that can bring together strong academic disciplines to address important economic and societal challenges. Universities and science minister Jo Johnson’s unequivocal commitment to dual support is most welcome.

But current levels of investment will not be enough to protect the competitiveness of UK research in the longer term. Other countries are scaling up their investment, making themselves more attractive to investors and scarce talent. In submissions to the 2015 Spending Review, UUK and the Campaign for Science an​d Engineering have both made clear that five more years of real-terms cuts will risk our ability to compete and collaborate with others.

Beware…


When funding is tight, ‘tucking under’ – maintaining, or even increasing, the headline budget but increasing the number of areas it needs to cover – might appear tempting. The 2010 Spending Review brought the UK Space Agency, with a budget of more than £150 million a year, into the ring fenced budget with no additional money to support it. There were benefits to bringing the Space Agency so close to science but there was no disguising the additional pressure this put on the budget. This time round, the science community will be watching the spending power of the budget rather than the headline figure.

Much has been said about the need for simplification and efficiency in funding. These are welcome in a research base that already fights hard to hold its world-leading position. But if these terms are just euphemisms for cuts then they are not welcome at all. Sometimes efficiency is maximised by spending more money rather than less.

What next?


Successive governments have protected and nurtured the UK’s scientific ecosystem. It has become an outstanding success: making our economy more productive; our society more resilient; our population more healthy; and our communities more vibrant. Let’s build on that success and not damage it.

This is the fifth in a series of blogs commenting on some of the issues discussed in Universities UK’s submission to the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

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