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Protest over threatened cut to science advice budget

‘The end of science in parliament as we know it’

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology is threatened with a £98,000 budget cut by 2014-15.

Scientists and campaigners have written to the speaker of the House of Commons to protest the proposed cut. Adam Afriyie, the Conservative MP for Windsor who is POST’s chairman, said the cut “could spell the end of science in Parliament as we know it”.

The proposal to cut POST’s budget is made in a report by the Finance and Services Committee, which considers expenditure and administration for the House of Commons. It states: “There is scope for better co-ordination on science and technology issues between POST and the [House of Commons] Library which would mitigate any reduction in services to members. The saving represents around 1.4 per cent of the combined library research and POST budget and would mean some savings in staff and/or non-staff costs.”

In an open letter sent on 8 November to the speaker John Bercow, Conservative MP for Buckingham and chairman of the House of Commons Commission, scientists and campaigners defended the office.

“POST’s budget should be protected and ring-fenced from other budgets to ensure that its bicameral, independent and peer-reviewed analysis and advice remains available to parliamentarians and to give it the freedom to continue to develop,” argue the signatories. They include a former president of the Royal Society, Robert May; the chief executive of the Biochemical Society, Kate Baillie; writer and clinician Ben Goldacre; and Nobel chemistry laureate Harry Kroto.

On 8 November, Afriyie published an update on the office. Afriyie’s newsletter message does not refer to the proposed cuts, but outlines statistics to show the extent that POST’s briefing notes are used by parliamentarians and the public.

Afriyie’s message claims that over the past year more than one million ‘POST notes’ have been downloaded from its website.

“Around 80 per cent of MPs and peers use POST notes multiple times a year and we know that they are also extremely popular outside Parliament,” he wrote. “POSTnotes have been described by parliamentary science advisers in other countries as the ‘gold standard’.”

The Commons’ finance and services committee’s report covers expenditure incurred by the house on other services, such as catering and publications. It was debated in the House of Commons on 8 November. Afriyie said: “I believe this debate marks a watershed moment for science in Parliament and depending on the way the budget changes are introduced there is a danger that this could spell the end of science in Parliament as we know it.” He added that he had heard that the £98,000 saving could be made by cutting a senior post in the office.

John Thurso, chairman of the finance and services committee and Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, said he hopes to discuss the proposals with Afriyie and POST’s board and staff members to address their concerns: “I’d hope that the results of that would be the correct accommodation.”