Thursday, 25 March 2010

What does the Budget mean for science?

Shortly after Alistair Darling sat down after delivering his Budget speech today, Lord Drayson, the Science and Innovation Minister, took to Twitter with his response. His verdict:
"A great budget for science and science based business."
It might well be. But it's very difficult to reach that conclusion from Mr Darling's speech and the Treasury's published documents. It's true that there are a few good things there for science, and given the widespread nervousness in the research community that cuts are on the way, the absence of anything bad is in itself a cause for celebration. Science, though, could hardly be called a centrepiece.
I counted four mentions of the word "science" in the Chancellor's statement, only one of which referred to a new initiative. There were another six in the Budget Report, including two in headings and one in the glossary. That's a little hard to reconcile with Lord Drayson's characteristic optimism.

That's not to say there weren't some cherries. There is £270 million of new money for universities, to fund an extra 20,000 places in science, technology, engineering and maths. Good news for sure. Also welcome was the £35 million for the Universities Capital Fund, to support commercialisation of their activities, and £30 million for the new Web Science Institute.
What wasn't addressed at all, however, was the future of the science budget. There was no indication of how research funding will fare in the next Comprehensive Spending Review -- and it is that event, not this Budget, which will have the greatest impact on the field. If the next Chancellor cuts or freezes the science budget, the little extra that has been invested today will count for little. And we aren't any the wiser about what is likely to transpire.
In their responses to the Budget, science groups have largely taken the same view. Sir Peter Williams, Vice-President and Treasurer of the Royal Society, said:
“With more and more of our competitor nations announcing increased funding for science – some of them significantly - it’s going to be vital that the UK steps up to the plate and invests heavily in a sector that is one of our few genuine areas of economic advantage. Science has to be central to any long-term strategy for economic growth.
"Today’s Budget shows some indication that Government appreciates the role science can play in re-building our economy. The funds earmarked for modernisation in universities and commercialisation of research are small but positive initiatives. However, we’ll see just how serious they are when money is allocated in the next Comprehensive Spending Review.”
The Campaign for Science and Engineering's response is here. Highlights include:
“The government’s additional support for educating the next generation of science and engineering graduates is needed. Their skills are in demand by employers and will be vital for re-balancing the economy.
“Unfortunately, there was no clarification about how the government would reconcile the planned £600 million cuts to higher education, science and research budgets, with Lord Mandelson’s commitment to protect science spending. If the government is going to see through its commitment under the Science and Innovation Investment Framework, then the Science Budget for 2011 – 2014 should be no less than the Budget’s forecast for economic growth of at least 3%.”
Nature's The Great Beyond blog has a nice roundup by Richard van Noorden, and I also recommend Roger Highfield's take in New Scientist's The S Word blog.