State of the Nation: government protection of the science budget has come at a cost

Funding, steady as she goes. notes Alessandro Storniolo/Shutterstock.com

Science and research were not at the front of the political debate in 2010. The first coalition government for a generation was cobbled together in the middle of a global economic recession and a domestic banking crisis which combined to put public spending under pressure.

The formal coalition agreement made only fleeting reference to university research. But the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties comprising the coalition made more detailed statements in which they expressed support for science. Has the past five years of government lived up to these signals? Certainly the government has protected and even expanded science funding in the face of public spending cuts in most other areas. But achieving that outcome involved a hard ride through a land of smoke and mirrors, and the support has come with strings attached.

I don’t cling to every syllable uttered by politicians. They need the freedom to try out ideas and allow policy to evolve, with manifestos the place where the outcomes of those trials appear. The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) invited the leaders of three political parties to set out their plans for science in more detail shortly before the 2010 election. The responses to this request were duly published and I treat them as equivalent to manifesto commitments.

During the election campaign, there was close alignment on science between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. The Lib Dems were bolder and more explicit in their spending promises but it was clear that, like the Conservatives, they were approaching public finances with caution.

Leaving scientists to choose priorities

The coalition partners agreed that, with some specific exceptions, academic research should be prioritised by researchers. Some minor infringements of this long-standing Haldane Principle by the previous administration made it an election issue. This principle – under which the government outlines research areas of strategic interest and leaves the details up to academics – might seem arcane, but adhering to it has underpinned the UK’s outstanding science and research performance. Most major economies spend more of their national income than the UK on science. Indeed, the UK’s science spending is mediocre by international standards. But not many countries share the ruthlessly meritocratic process by which the UK research community selects its projects, and only the US outperforms this country in terms of scientific excellence.

UK punches above its weight considering the amount it spends on science. Graeme Reid/OECD, Author provided

Perhaps because this was a cost-neutral policy commitment, the independence of science found its way into the coalition agreement:

We will ensure that public funding mechanisms for university research safeguard its academic integrity.

Before the end of 2010, Ministers David Willetts and Vince Cable had jointly published a “clarifying” statement, which explained:

Decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review. The Coalition government supports this principle as vital for the protection of academic independence and excellence. We all benefit from its application in the UK.

Protecting investment in science

The previous Labour government had been strong supporters of science, with funding growing via a ten-year science and innovation policy developed by the then chancellor Gordon Brown and science and innovation minister David (Lord) Sainsbury. While researchers kept quiet during the election campaign there was unease over the prospect of funding cuts as the country entered an era of austerity.

As newly appointed ministers soon discovered, many researchers across medicine, the environment, the arts, agriculture, engineering and economics joined together when threatened with cuts. High-profile global corporations made it clear that the UK’s strong research base was one reason they invested here. Charities expressed fears that science cuts would undermine their relationships with donors and universities.

Science budgets have not fallen over five years, relatively speaking. Graeme Reid/HM Treasury, Author provided

In an effort to stimulate growth and build confidence in a flagging economy, the coalition latched onto strong evidence of science as an engine of growth. Science funding bodies sought more social and economic impact from the fruits of UK research, an agenda that was gaining prominence coincidentally just as it was needed. Protecting science funding was about more than just calming the academic community: it was about the future of the economy. David Willetts was already a fan of blue-skies research, and by connecting science to the economic agenda he won George Osborne’s support and enthusiasm. This crystallised in the October 2010 Spending Review. While most government departments faced 20% cuts, Osborne announced:

A ring fence will be maintained to ensure continuity of investment in science and research… To support long term growth, the government will prioritise support for world class science [and] maintain resource spending in cash terms.

The cuts affecting other departments had been dodged and a ringfence placed around £4.6 billion each year for science and research until 2015. A wonderful outcome for science. Then we read the small print.

The small print

First, the good news applied only to recurrent expenditure. This meant researchers salaries and project funding remained intact but the annual rate of capital investment was to be cut by almost 40% by 2015, reducing investment in science research facilities by £1.5 billion. The long-term nature of capital investment increased the effect of this sudden withdrawal – having taken into account existing commitments to capital investment, there was hardly any money for new facilities.

It also emerged that the protected part of the budget would be stretched to cover costs of the UK Space Agency, which had previously been funded from elsewhere. There were also cuts of 40% (or “cumulative real growth of -40%”, as the review put it) to administration budgets over the five year parliament.

Marrying science to the economy

By 2011 it was clear that the economic downturn was stubborn. The government was looking for new ways to kickstart growth without leaving its policy of fiscal restraint. A desire to avoid recreating a finance-centric, London-focused economy as existed before the crash led to frequent speeches about improving the diversity of the economy and re-balancing it regionally beyond the southeast.

But what could government actually do to stimulate long-term growth and high quality jobs? How about making capital investments in science and research? That’s a good idea.

So in the March 2011 budget the chancellor announced new investments in high-performance computing, space technology and research campuses in Edinburgh, Oxfordshire, Norwich and Cheshire – details specified by ministers, albeit on scientific advice. More were announced in the autumn statement later that year.

In the 2012 budget there was a further emphasis on science, with the chancellor creating the £100m Research Partnership investment Fund (RPIF) for businesses and charities to invest alongside universities in major scientific facilities. Successive budgets and autumn statements followed a similar theme, with the 2015 budget including the announcement of the Alan Turing Institute at the British Library in London.

More cash, but at a price

Direct capital investment from government has made good the 2010 cuts and increased the annual rate of investment to £1.1 billion, some 20% higher in cash terms than in 2010. It has also committed to maintain that level until the end of the next Parliament in 2020-21. RPIF alone has led to more than £1 billion investment in scientific infrastructure, two-thirds of which comes from businesses and charities. This scheme has been extended until at least 2017 so we can expect even more of these investment partnerships.

This adds up to substantial investment in modern scientific facilities with higher levels of ministerial engagement in priority-setting and specifying the locations for facilities around the UK. In effect the science community was offered money – lots of it – at a time of public spending cuts in return for accepting closer ties to political priorities. This is not blunt political direction of science but nor is it the full independence to which the science community had grown accustomed.

So where are we now? Funding for scientific research projects is still based on merit and managed by independent peer review. The level of this recurrent funding has remained fixed since 2010, as per signals from the coalition on entering office. Of course the spending power of that funding has been eroded by inflation. This raises questions about how the operation of new capital facilities are going to be funded.

Lord Krebs, until recently chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, described a “damaging disconnect” between recurrent budgets and capital investments. Along with CaSE, Krebs is among those calling for a long term science funding strategy and greater transparency in the decisions involved. This would give researchers the opportunity to plan for the future, increase the appeal of UK science to business and charity partners, and offer attractive career options to ensure a continued stream of talented new scientists and researchers.

The outgoing government seemed to recognise this issue in its Plan for Growth: Science and Innovation published at the end of last year. Whether the next government will continue this approach is something we will shortly discover.