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Spending Review offers relief for scientists, but pain remains

Susan Watts | 16:23 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Scientists were obviously relieved after Chancellor George Osborne's announcement in the Spending Review that the science budget is not going to be slashed, but frozen in cash terms for the next four years.

Rumours had suggested cuts of around 20%, which leading figures had said would mean "game over", not just for science in this country, but for future growth of the economy as well.

And at face value, it's a powerful vote of confidence in the contribution that science can make.

"Astonishing" was how particle physicist and television science presenter, Professor Brian Cox, described the outcome today, as he received an OBE for services to science.

He said the success was a clear signal for scientists like him that it is vital they stand up and speak out for their subject:

"For the first time I think we've made the political point as well as the economic point that supporting science is invaluable," he said.

He added that science is clearly part of the future of the country: "So it needs to be seen as something that kids want to do, it needs to be seen as a career that you can attain...you don't have to be a Hawking or an Einstein or a Newton to make a contribution.

"But for me, the main thing to say to school kids is, if you want to be a scientist, it doesn't matter if it's medical research, or chemistry or whatever it is, then you can choose to do it."

Without wishing to spoil the fun, the freeze in the annual science budget (of £4.6bn billion) still means that, in real terms, science faces a cut - and a significant one - of just under 10% over the next four years. And that is a huge challenge.

Most importantly, the freeze must be seen in an international context in which countries from Asia to Europe to the US are pumping extra money into science.

Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat Science spokesman, conceded the point:

"The science community will be relieved by this settlement, but we know that even 10% real terms cuts will be painful, (and) will need reversing as soon as the fiscal position improves."

But Mr Osborne does seem to have listened to what scientists have been saying in recent weeks.

In his speech today he said: "Britain is a world leader in scientific research, and that is vital to our economic success."

Addressing the Commons he said that he will protect the £220m UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation at St Pancras, the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, the Institute for Animal Health in Pirbright and the Diamond Synchrotron facility in Oxford.

Questions remain then over the UK's continued role in international projects in fields such as particle physics and astronomy, as well as the impact of cuts in university funding and R&D budgets across Government departments, which could still have a damaging effect on overall science spend in the UK.

More will be asked of the charities which currently support science. Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said "even at about 10% down, we'll be playing catch-up in an international field which could see UK science left behind".

Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, again cited the international context: "The government has recognised the importance of sustaining the international standing of UK science in a context where other nations are forging ahead."

And that's the point, science in the UK may be breathing more than a sigh of relief today, but elsewhere they're investing, fast and furious, not just keeping funding level.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    what happened to the 'white heat of techknowledgy...I wish I could spell that, I remember Harold Wilson going on about it....cannot remember if it ever happened....

  • Comment number 2.

    Traditionally the UK has been a focus and hub of innovation and science. This is where our roots are. Investing in future technologies in essential if we are to retain our status as the innovation nation.

  • Comment number 3.

    AS 10% cut in real terms over 4 years is ok, if that cut first and foremost targets waste and inefficiency in the running of the Research Councils. For example, one could quite possibly cut far more than 10% of the staff and costs at the rather lavish HQs of the Research Councils in Swindon, and not see any discernable impact on scientific output in the UK. Staff at those HQs could receive new computers every three years rather than two, for example. Those are the kinds of savings that should be explored before any below-inflation adjustments are made to the funding available for actual research projects.

    But sadly I suspect the RCUK gravy train in Swindon will keep on rolling, while there will be cuts to funding for grant rounds and support levels for facilities.

  • Comment number 4.

    We have a traditionof care. However it would appearthat not for those of us who are native born.
    How come we pay child benifit to migrants when there children are non dom's.
    How come we contribute so much to the EU when we care and maintain so many EU people's.
    How come we allow free at source health care to non native people's in our NHS.
    When are folk going to wise up to the fact that we cannot maintain the rest of the world but need to help ourselves first

  • Comment number 5.

    SICK NATION SYNDROME (#4)

    A few years back we had 'sick buildings' - I personally know of an angry hospital. Britain is, without doubt, perverse.

    Somehow governance took to espousing every minority, and invited them to confront the viable centre-dwellers. Many of Nature's glaringly obvious norms, are now flouted - even denigrated. Unpleasantness is entertainment. Art needs no artistic input. Visceral anathema is termed phobia. Manipulation of imaginary money is rewarded above productive work. The indigene is de facto xenophobic.

    There are individual people just as perverse. Tony had a good shot at it.

  • Comment number 6.

    SCIENCE-BASED POLITICS - ALWAYS BEHIND THE CURVE

    They bang on about Carbon when climate change is as timeless as bears and the Pope.

    They bang on about clever Britons, but the clever ones KNOW that CO2 is not driving climate (AND know all about Popes and bears) and they are ignored.

    They bang on about the largest off-shore wind-generation array. But did they make provision for (or install) any tidal generators at the base of each tower?

    It is said that 'those who can, do, and those who can't, teach'. The awful truth is that those who should not be in science at all - having no acumen - ADVISE GOVERNMENTS. And politicians - being very short of fundamental skills - cannot recognise a blagger, with 'BLAGGER' written right across his forehead!

    (And Susan is just a very nice person.)

    Oh - it's all going awfully well.

  • Comment number 7.

    Sorry Susan, I'm not breathing a sigh of relief this morning. Since my last fixed term contract finished twelve months ago, I have been looking for another in a succession of entry-level postdoc posts. The main marketplace for posts funded by the Science Budget is jobs.ac.uk. Advertised posts on this site have fallen by 30-40% over the past year, which is difficult to reconcile with claims of level funding for science.

 

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