Five years of the Tories creates uncertainty for British science

Thousands of people protested against planned cuts to science in 2010. Mark Ramsay/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The election of the new Conservative government generates uncertainty about the future of UK science. While the party’s record in government shows that it recognises the value of research, its commitment to a referendum on EU membership, and lack of commitment to ringfencing spending is worrying. On the other hand, the appointment of the new Science minister may suggest that research will have an increasingly important economic role.

The Conservative manifesto made a number of welcome commitments to research, including plans to “invest in science, back our industrial strategies and make Britain the technology centre of Europe”. It also pledged to continue the former coalition government’s Science and Innovation Strategy, which includes investing £1.1 billion in capital each year until 2010-20. However, it did not commit to protecting non-capital spending on research in the forthcoming spending review.

To understand the changes that might take place, it is important to recognise that continuity, rather than radical change, has been the main feature of UK science policy since David Sainsbury laid the ground work for a cross-party consensus on avoiding the damaging policy flip-flopping of the past.

It is unlikely that the new science and universities minister Jo Johnson, the head of the Number 10 Policy Unit and London mayor Boris Johnson’s brother, will have a radically different view from his predecessor Greg Clark. While not a scientist, Johnson has a reputation for valuing research. If this is maintained, it is likely we will see a continuing, and possibly increased, emphasis on the economic impact of research, as well as additional devolution of powers to cities and regions – both of which could change how and where the money is spent.

Funding and free flow of talent

That said, the commitment to a referendum on membership of the European Union should be a real concern for scientists. The UK is a major scientific player in Europe; 80 of the 302 senior research awards from the European Research Council go to the UK. Research is increasingly international and constraints on the free movement of scientists after an “out vote” would be very damaging.

Just the fact that a referendum is taking place is likely to send a worrying message to the world about the UK’s international commitments. Even incorrect perceptions could influence researchers and students’ willingness to come to the UK, constraining our ability to recruit the best staff and students. Encouragingly the new science minister recognises the importance of international students to the health of the UK university system and its ability to contribute to society.

The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the vote may mean firms are tempted to relocate their research and development programmes to guarantee long-term access to EU markets, damaging the wider UK research system. Given these risks, universities and scientists are already active in pressing for a pro-EU vote.

At present a vote to leave looks unlikely – but Cameron may not get much from his renegotiations on the terms of the UK’s membership, as any big changes may require referendums in other member states. But a vote for a Brexit would have a serious negative impact on industrial and academic science as it might cut us off from full participation in EU research networks.

Budgets are also uncertain. The last coalition government protected science against cuts under a so-called “budget ringfence”. The Conservative party’s manifesto has not, however, committed to maintain this arrangement. This is a concern, given the emphasis on economic austerity.

Planned cuts to public spending are probably too severe to be politically viable. Cuts to research spending may therefore be tempting – there is talk in Westminster that the universities have had it relatively easy. This is worrying for science, as the co-ordinated lobbying to protect the research budget by learned societies, grassroots pressure groups and others that existed five years ago, is less visible today.

George Osborne will have to think outside the box to protect science when making cuts to public spending. See Li, CC BY-SA

Even continuing the ringfence is having a damaging effect as inflation takes its toll and causes research councils’ budgets to fall by approximately 15% in real terms since 2010. The other major concern is that other areas of spending move inside the ringfence, potentially diluting the overall pot of money available for research. The diagnosis in BIS (not in academic science policy) that the UK’s solid research performance, but weak R&D spending, indicates a problem with commercialisation, may see more money spent there.

Luckily, a number of factors may counter this risk. Science has strong political and public support – and politicians are aware of the cost of the Liberal Democrats’ broken promise on student loans. Moreover, politicians increasingly recognise how much science contributes to economic growth. This is important as UK productivity growth has been dire and, while this huge problem was largely ignored in the election, the Treasury is worried. The Science Minister is a close friend of the Chancellor, suggesting policies might be introduced to improve the impact of research on productivity and economic growth.

Finally, the science budget may be saved by a seemingly small-scale change to accountancy rules. As of September 2014, research and development has been moved from “current spending” to “capital investment” in the national accounts. Spending on science now has less impact on the deficit.

Even if funding and the UK’s position in the EU are maintained, there are changes underway in UK innovation policy. The government’s commitment to devolving economic powers to cities and regions is likely to continue given Greg Clark’s promotion to Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Local economic policy making is increasingly extending to cover local innovation policy – and this, in turn will influence research. Universities are probably going to increasing be expected to focus more on generating local economic impact and providing support to local firms. This devolution of economic power may, in the long term, help change the geographic distribution of funding, currently heavily concentrated in London and south-east England. This could be good news for the universities driving the Northern Powerhouse.

So overall, the science system may well be subject to considerable changes. Research is now recognised to be more important when it comes to delivering the productivity increases needed to improve the UK’s economic performance, but this may not be enough to avoid a continuing bumpy ride if significant cuts are made.