U.K. Government Promises to Shore Up Britain's Science Base


CAMBRIDGE, U.K.--The British government this week placed a big bet on science and technology to make the country more competitive. On 12 July, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown pledged to increase spending on science by £1 billion ($1.9 billion) by fiscal year 2007-08. And in a 10-year strategy paper, he laid out a plan to push R&D spending from its current level of 1.9% of gross domestic product to 2.5% by 2014. That would put the United Kingdom on a par with its major European rivals and not far behind the United States. "I think it is a good spending review for science. Science has done well," says Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, Britain's giant biomedical research charity.

Public and private sector investment in R&D as a % of GDP, 2002

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The announcement was part of the chancellor's spending review for the 3-year period from 2005-06 to 2007-08. Brown outlined plans across a wide range of government programs from national security to overseas aid and, controversially, said he would fire more than 100,000 civil servants to help pay for it. But at a time when the chancellor proposed keeping a lid on many areas of government spending, "science does better than just about anywhere," notes Robert May, president of the Royal Society. The spending plans for science--amounting to an increase of 5.8% per year above inflation for 3 years--do not specify particular programs or facilities that might get the money but instead seek to strengthen the whole research system. The 10-year strategy, Brown said, "is designed to make Britain the best and most attractive location for science and innovation in the coming years." And, in the latest indication of a growing partnership between the government and Britain's research charities, the Wellcome Trust pledged $2.8 billion to the strategy over the next 5 years.

The new government money will include $680 million by 2007-08 for the Office of Science and Technology (OST), bringing its annual budget to $6.1 billion. OST supports the six grant-giving research councils and the major public research labs. And by 2007-08 there will also be an additional $610 million for university science departments and $530 million for efforts aimed at transferring research results from academia to industry. To bolster the research workforce, the government is promising larger grants for trainee science teachers and doctoral students as well as improved salaries for science teachers and postdocs. May says the government has courageously steered clear of the politically attractive option of announcing big high-profile projects and focused money on unglamorous infrastructure. "Unsexy indirect costs are just as real," he says. But he is concerned that there is little new money for direct costs, a concern echoed by Ian Diamond, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council. "There is not going to be a large amount of new money to fund new research," he says.

Conservation biologist Peter Cotgreave, director of the pressure group Save British Science, welcomes a promise in the spending plan to tinker with the "dual support" system for funding U.K. research. At the moment, research grants do not cover the full cost of conducting the research; much of the overheads are covered by universities from funds supplied by other government bodies. From September 2005 onward, the research councils will ramp up their contribution to the full cost of projects, and the government has set aside $150 million up to 2007-08 to begin this process.

Cotgreave welcomes this move but wishes "we could get there sooner," so that university funds could be freed up for "offbeat ideas that are not yet ready for a grant." May, however, says that universities may get lumbered with the huge administrative burden of working out overheads on a grant-by-grant basis. The United Kingdom, he says, has managed to get high-quality research with relatively low funding because of its lack of red tape, but he worries about the growth of the "managerial classes." He adds: "The demonstrable growth in administrative [nonsense] must be reined back."

Cotgreave is also dismayed that the government has done nothing to improve the chronically poor salaries of university researchers. In a global market in which Britain's best scientists are often lured overseas, "the government has not addressed the problem of retention."

A large part of the government's new spending is devoted to technology transfer into industry. One reason is that, on average, industrial R&D spending lags behind that of Britain's competitors (see table). Cotgreave points out that the government has upped its Higher Education Innovation Fund by more than 50% to $200 million, but this is small change compared to the size of the total science budget. He says the government will have to do something clever to get industry to spend more on R&D. "In recent years, universities have changed beyond all recognition. They're doing the push. Industry is not pulling things through."

While the chancellor tries to steer a narrow course between largesse and fiscal prudence, he will have one eye on the next general election, due sometime in the next 18 months. His ability to carry out these bold plans depends on the Labour government's staying in office.

With reporting by Fiona Proffitt.

Reposted with permission Science Magazine Vol 305, p. 318, 16 July, 2004.

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