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Autumn statement stirs science budget fears

‘Anxious time’ as economic model says BIS faces £4.8bn cut

Researchers and campaigners have voiced their fears for the science budget after a number of economic analyses warned of big cuts to Whitehall spending following the chancellor’s autumn statement.

The left-leaning think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ annual budget could fall by £4.8 billion to £9bn between 2014-15 and 2019-20. This is based on a forecast by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility that Whitehall spending would have to decline by 11.5 per cent from 2015-16 to 2019-20 for chancellor George Osborne to meet his target for deficit reduction. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that £55bn in cuts may be needed over the same period for Osborne to meet the target.

Departmental R&D could also be at risk. An analysis by the Campaign for Science and Engineering in January showed that half of Whitehall departments cut R&D expenditure by more than 20 per cent between 2009-10 and 2011-12—in many cases disproportionately to changes in their budget.

If the £3bn spending on the research councils were maintained in cash terms, the rest of the department’s budget would fall from £10.8bn in 2014-15 to £6bn in 2019-20, based on the IPPR’s numbers, which is a drop of 44 per cent—raising concerns that the ring fence might be seen as too costly. Cuts on this scale are unlikely, but they show the pressure that the research ring fence could put on unprotected BIS spending areas. 

Sarah Main, the director of CaSE, says it is working “behind the scenes” to argue that science is good for the UK. “It’s an anxious time,” she says, “[but] I’m confident the Treasury is convinced of the economic argument.”

Jennifer Rohn, a biologist who set up the grass-roots lobby group Science is Vital in 2010, says she is uneasy about the fate of basic research. “We haven’t heard a peep about the ring-fenced science budget,” she says. The national academies are expected to publish a statement on research funding in early 2015.

Maintaining the research ring fence in the next parliament is a party policy of the Liberal Democrats, but so far not of Labour or the Conservatives. But even with a protected ring fence, the research councils’ budget has declined from £3.4bn in 2010 to £3bn in 2014, owing to inflation. Maintaining the ring fence would see the councils lose an average of £52 million a year up to 2019-20, based on projections of inflation from the OBR. By 2019, the research councils’ income would equal the 2001 level.

The government’s decision to take control of capital spending for projects of national priority—worth about half of the annual £1.1bn capital budget—has also been questioned. Osborne said these projects would serve several grand challenges, set by the government after consultation. But Paul Crowther, an astrophysicist at the University of Sheffield, would prefer spending to be prioritised by research councils and learned societies. “Grand challenges is another name for government pet projects,” he says.

Martin Rees, a former president of the Royal Society, says he is worried that, since the abolition of the Advisory Board of the Research Councils and the Whitehall post of director-general of the research councils, the government has not been receiving enough scientific advice on research spending. “We don’t even have a half-time person in that role now,” says Rees. “The advice within government on priorities between the research councils is deeply inadequate.”

The government has not yet outlined its grand challenges. These are expected in the science and innovation strategy, which has been delayed since its slated publication date of 3 December.

Labour’s science spokesman Liam Byrne says nobody knows how science will be affected by the autumn statement. “The government’s rhetoric is that it has a long-term plan. But in reality, science faces complete uncertainty. This is the opposite of long-termism,” he says.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight