UK science spending to remain 'flat'

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

  • Published
ERC science
Image caption,
The government says it recognises the importance of a strong science base

Publicly funded science in the UK will have to get by with another period of fixed spending.

Chancellor George Osborne says he intends to keep the country's R&D budget at its current level through to the next election.

This figure, which amounts to about £4.6bn per year, has been held flat since 2011.

The Chancellor made the announcement as part of the government's Spending Review delivered to Parliament.

He did, however, promise to increase capital expenditure - the money going into the laboratory infrastructure. This will almost double from the current £0.6bn.

Science leaders broadly welcomed the settlement given current economic circumstances, but some warned that the UK risked being overtaken by countries that were now investing more aggressively in their research base.

'Keep inventing'

"Scientific discovery is first and foremost an expression of the relentless human search to know more about our world, but it's also an enormous strength for a modern economy," Mr Osborne told MPs.

"From synthetic biology to graphene - Britain is very good at it and we're going to keep it that way.

"I am committing today to maintain the resource budget for science at £4.6bn, to increase the capital budget to £1.1bn and to maintain that real increase to the end of the decade.

"Investment in science is an investment in our future. So, yes, from the next generation of jet engines to cutting edge supercomputers, we say, 'keep inventing, keep delivering'. This country will back you all the way."

The capital expenditure announcement was warmly welcomed by the scientific community. Capital investment took a heavy hit after the last election but was then largely restored through a series of subsequent announcements.

Mr Osborne says he now wants to see the science capital budget grow in line with inflation each year to 2020-21.

This would provide stability for long-term planning. The Spending Review document, released by the Treasury, talks (pages 19 & 20) about committing to funding "high-priority projects", including the Sabre air-breathing jet-cum-rocket engine and a new supercomputer for the Met Office.

League table

The "flat cash" settlement on day-to-day research will however frustrate many scientific leaders. The director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Dr Sarah Main, said Wednesday's settlement had left the research community "exposed to competition from the global scientific premier league of nations".

"Today was an important opportunity for the Chancellor to demonstrate his intent to put science and engineering at the heart of economic growth. His commitments are welcome in the context of the scale of cuts applied across all government departments. However, in the context of the scale of commitment to science and engineering for economic recovery by our global partners, the UK is now lagging further and further behind."

And she added: "With today's flat cash commitment to the science budget, inflation is set to erode the science budget by a cumulative sum of £276m from now until 2015/16 (6%). Flat cash is far from flat."

Public science spending in Britain currently runs at about 0.65% of GDP, compared with an average of 0.8% for the G8 nations.

China is aiming to spend 2.5% of its GDP on research by 2020, South Korea is targeting 5% by 2022 and Brazil 2.5% by the same year.

Compared to the OECD group of developed nations, Britain's science spend is 7th in absolute terms but only 25th in percentage terms.

The UK government's science budget is largely handled by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which will see its overall budget reduced by 6%.

Mr Osborne confirmed in his Commons speech that responsibility and funding lines for the Medical Research Council would not be moved to the Department of Health as had been mooted.

'Brightest minds'

Sir Paul Nurse, the current president of the Royal Society, said: "Last year, the chancellor came to the Royal Society and gave a speech that put science and innovation at the heart of long term sustainable economic growth. He was asked to provide the money to back that up and today he has done that.

"There is a growing consensus across parliament and in the business community that spending on science is an investment in the future. The government has protected its contribution and we now need to find ways to encourage greater commitment from industry, which is still under investing in research.

"In recent years science has suffered, as maintaining investment means a real terms cut due to inflation, but in the context of cuts elsewhere, science has been relatively protected. Today's announcement should be seen as a foundation for a long term strategy of increased investment."

The science minister David Willetts told BBC News: "This settlement reflects the vital contribution that science, innovation and higher education make to the UK economy. Increasing capital funding for science and universities will underpin our ambitious industrial strategy, ensure our brightest minds can commercialise their ideas and support the knowledge that drives growth." and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos