Science & Environment

Budget's £100m extra for science

Stem cell research

The Chancellor George Osborne has found £100m of new money for science in his Budget.

The bulk of the funds (£80m), which come from the bank levy, will be invested in new research centres at Daresbury, Norwich and Cambridge, he said.

The smaller proportion (£20m) would go to projects at Harwell.

These include investments in new space technologies, and in three new instruments at the Isis neutron source.

Isis is a giant machine that can probe the structure of matter. Scientists exploit its insights to advance a host of new technologies from drug design to improved mobile phones.

Also included in the budget was a promise to address regulatory issues that are deemed to impede science-based industries from maximising their performance.

In the life sciences, Mr Osborne announced a new health research regulatory agency that would aim to simplify and speed up the business of running the clinical trials which are essential to the development of new drugs.

In the space sector, he promised to reform the Outer Space Act, to reduce the costs to British companies and science institutes of launching to, and operating in, orbit.

"Science is one area where Britain already has an advantage over many other countries and it is central to our future as a place to create business, and that is one reason why I protected the science budget from cuts last year," Mr Osborne said during his House of Commons Budget statement.

"I can tell the house that I have been able to find - again from this year's extra bank levy - an additional £100m to invest in new science facilities at the Babraham Research Campus in Cambridge, the Norwich Research Park for environmental and life sciences, the International Space Innovation Centre at Harwell, and the National Science and Innovation Campus at Daresbury."

In his spending review last October, Mr Osborne promised that science funding would be frozen in cash terms over the next four years, but he also made it clear that research councils (the bodies that distribute science funds) would have to absorb cuts of 41% to their capital expenditure. This is the money spent on building, maintenance or equipment.

And the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) said the additional £100m had to be seen in the context of the capital expenditure reductions announced last year.

"We welcome the Chancellor's commitment to making the UK a world-leader for fields including advanced manufacturing and life sciences, funded out of revenue from the bank levy," commented CaSE director Imran Khan. "The extra funding announced today could be a first step on the path to making science and engineering pivotal to growth.

"But labs across the country are going to be struggling to make ends meet following the budget cuts announced last year."

"We have to use the UK's high-tech base to help overturn our nearly trillion-pound debt. If the Chancellor wants to make the most of his new £100m investment, he should invest in science and engineering to the extent that our competitors, including China and Germany, are doing - or risk our economy lagging two steps behind."

On the issue of reform to reduce the complexity of regulation and governance in medical and health research, Sir Mark Walport, the director of the Wellcome Trust medical charity, said the initiative was an important measure for growth.

"This is an essential step towards maintaining the UK's position as a global leader in medical research," he commented. "Getting permission to set up clinical trials and other studies in the NHS is currently a major barrier to this research."

And Sir Paul Nurse, the newly installed president of the Royal Society, added: "In a very difficult comprehensive spending review last year, science did reasonably well. That was in recognition of the key role that science can play in strengthening the economy and in improving the quality of life and health of the nation.

"The downside was a major reduction in the money for the new equipment and facilities our scientists need to do their work.

"Today's budget is hopefully a first step in plugging that gap and is a sign of the government's continuing faith in and commitment to UK science. The announcement of an additional £100 million for science facilities around the UK will help create manufacturing and other jobs and will facilitate work that will help tackle key challenges in areas such as health, energy and food."

Professor Nurse said he hoped the increase in the rate of R&D tax relief for small and medium sized enterprises would also stimulate companies to invest in innovation.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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