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A spending review is looming, and research needs a single, strong voice, both in public and behind the scenes. But competing interests make such unity unlikely, says Anna Fazackerley.

With the government admitting that austerity will be the dominant theme for a long time to come, the battle to defend the UK science budget is gaining momentum behind the scenes. It will be quite a fight.

Westminster sources are divided on whether a spending review is politically achievable before the next general election. Yet the recent forecasts on public spending by the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that most departments are likely to face another cut come 2015.

If you factor in protection for politically crucial departments such as health and schools, that cut becomes more brutal. This will make special pleading for higher education and research hard to pull off.

Teaching support in universities has already been sliced. The same goes for capital. This leaves the sizeable research budget in a pretty exposed position, and the ring-fence placed around science spending last time around arguably increases the risk.

The research budget, then, needs a protector. But it’s not clear who will come forward. There are many different voices, with differing priorities, making any straightforward defence of research pretty much impossible as things stand. For example, if ministers reduce research spending, the essential question then becomes how thinly do they spread what remains?

The mission groups have already been busy, with the Russell Group last month urging the government to concentrate research funds in top—that is to say, Russell Group—universities. The 24-strong group is still smarting from the results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, which found that 102 institutions contained world-class excellence. If the pie is shrinking, they want to be sure ministers don’t share it round all universities. The newer universities won’t take that lying down.

But while such PR assaults will be the most visible signs of struggle, the most important negotiations will happen behind closed doors.

One strong voice will be Mark Walport, who in April 2013 becomes the government’s chief scientific adviser. Walport’s stance on the science budget is unknown. He has, however, been a strong advocate of research concentration as head of the Wellcome Trust.

Another voice for science within Whitehall is that of the Council for Science and Technology, the prime minister’s high-level science advisory body. It has been regarded as a pretty toothless beast. But with the straight-talking Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, at the helm, and politically astute members such as Royal Society president Paul Nurse, the council may be gaining influence.

John O’Reilly, the newly appointed director general of knowledge and innovation at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, will need to hit the ground running, as the most important link between the research community and government decision-makers.

Meanwhile, the return to the Treasury of one of science’s most effective advocates in Whitehall, John Kingman, is causing ripples of hope. Kingman, whose father was vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, was behind then-chancellor Gordon Brown’s much-trumpeted 10-year investment strategy for science in 2004.

Yet when Brown was in the Treasury, civil servants often expressed exasperation with universities, saying that if you did them one favour they just demanded something else. This is a vital political lesson that academics will probably continue to ignore, to their cost.

Universities are feeling bruised—by cuts, by falling student numbers, by their uncomfortable reliance on international students, and by the volatility of the market that most of them agreed should be unleashed. The vast majority of institutions wanted higher fees, but their arrival has not made universities’ lives easier. In the words of one vice-chancellor of an elite university: “Graduates are paying more, taxpayers are paying more and universities aren’t seeing any real improvement.”

This is a dangerous message to let slip. Raising fees was a huge political risk for both sides of the coalition, carried out in response to years of strenuous lobbying from universities. Parents will want to know universities are worth the investment. And BIS and the Treasury will want to see strong signs that higher education is running with what it was given.

If one were constructing a PR message to take to government in favour of protecting science it would be pretty straightforward: science will help get the economy off its knees. The risk is that the cacophony of voices and demands emerging prevents this straightforward message from reaching the ears that matter.

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Anna Fazackerley is a writer specialising in higher education policy.