'Game Over' for British Science?

The Royal Society and the British Academy today strongly warned the British government that looming cuts to science funding could be "irreversibly catastrophic for the future of U.K. science and economic growth" if they go too far.

The new U.K. government, which has promised by October to provide details of cuts of up to 25% in public funding, recently asked several science bodies for advice. On 8 July, the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) made public its response, which ignited controversy for suggesting that "research should be concentrated on activities from which a contribution to the economy, within the short or medium term, is foreseeable." RAE went so far as to explicitly argue that engineering, more than physics and mathematics, deserved to have its funding preserved.

The Royal Society and the British Academy today released their responses. The Royal Society's submission to the government details the damaging effects of three possible funding scenarios, each with its own provocative description--a flat budget ("Weathering the Storm"), a 10% cut ("Slash and Burn"), and a 20% cut ("Game Over"). As one might expect, the society would prefer the flat budget over the other two choices and calls for the government to reverse any spending cuts when the economy improves. The society also appears to take a not-so-subtle swipe at RAE's recommendations, noting at one point:

… evidence suggests that prioritising research areas that are expected to produce the greatest short-term benefit is neither possible nor desirable. Innovation is not predictable or linear and advances often occur serendipitously at the margins or intersections of disciplines. There is no evidence that governments are any better at picking winners now than in the past.

The British Academy's submission is similarly cautionary, arguing that science funding cuts in the range of 25% would:

… have a hugely damaging impact on both the UK's world -- leading research base and the higher education sector as a whole. At a time when the UK's global competitors are increasing their public investment in their research base, the UK must not fall behind by cutting one of its few world -- class assets -- the UK's internationally renowned research base. If it does, the UK will lose, and possibly never regain, the momentum that has developed as a result of sustained investment over the last 15 years.