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The Science Budget: A roadmap for success or decline? 13.11.15

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The question on the lips of all with a passion for science is whether the relatively fresh-faced government will be cruel or kind with its budgetary allocation. If the government-commissioned Nurse Review is anything to go by then the research community could soon see some significant reforms. Sir Paul Nurse’s report, published on 19th November, recommended that  science funding in the UK be determined by a single independent agency that is chaired by a senior cabinet figure and liaises with a committee of ministers.

If these recommendations are incorporated into policy it would mark a change in approach when compared to the last administration. The previous Conservative-Lib Dem coalition dealt with much fanfare from scientists, when the news that the science budget would be frozen in cash terms, but this time a call to increase public funding in science from the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons could be met with a fountain of applause as the line dictates that a long-term ‘roadmap’ should be produced for increasing public and private sector science R&D investment in the UK to 3 per cent of GDP, an EU15 target.

This comes just two weeks ahead of the spending review where the Chancellor George Osborne will outline his plans for cuts of between 25 and 40 per cent of departmental budgets by 2020 – including the department responsible for the science budget.

If such an increase were put in place to reaffirm Britain’s status as a ‘science superpower’, the most interesting issue may be deliberation over the scope of this would be governmental sweetener and how the money could be targeted. All remains to be seen, but given the the number of burning issues acknowledged in this week’s committee, the possible increase could be earmarked to address a range of problems.

For example, the report was quick to recognise that many university labs and national science facilities have had to struggle with the rising capital costs of equipment and running charges without extra funding and that this should be addressed.

It also nodded to the assertion that the Catapult network has been a key success of the last Government’s commitment to strengthen the UK’s capacity to exploit research by building better research-industry partnerships. However, it also noted that this is only one strand of innovation support and shouldn’t be looked at in isolation.

What really came to the fore was a necessity to provide a greater degree of strategic oversight in science funding, with the committee advocating the production of an annual report to Parliament setting out and explaining public spending on science and innovation. In order to copper-fasten this improved oversight, it was coupled with a concession that the government would need to clearly outline the rationale behind any significant change in funding allocations in the future, which will at least give those in the science community a chance to plead their case.

The committee consensus also nodded to the fact that there is a strong correlation between innovation and economic growth, recommending that government retains the current system of innovation grants as a key policy tool, alongside R&D tax credits, for de-risking innovation investment. In addition, it advocated a critical examination in the spending review of the potential for extending the scope and availability of tax incentives and investment vehicles for innovation.

With the goal of the review to reduce overall government outgoings by £20 billion by 2020, those in the science industry may not hold out all hope that such calls for an increase will ring true. However, it is clear the industry has as good a chance to stake a claim as any other; with less than one per cent of the world’s population, the UK already produces over 15% of its scientific research, and recent figures demonstrate that for every £1 the government invests in Innovate UK, the UK economy receives £6 in gross value added. Will the Chancellor listen to the call?

If you have any questions on the blog contact niall@proofcommunication.com

Editor’s Note – this blog was updated on 20th November following publication of the Nurse Review