Research Avoids U.K. Budget Bloodbath

Was it the heavyweight reports produced by the likes of the Royal Society and the Research Councils UK that fund much of British science? Was it the roughly 2000 researchers who noisily demonstrated outside the Treasury earlier this month?

We may never know, but someone convinced the U.K.'s Business Secretary Vince Cable, who is in charge of government research spending, that science is worth protecting. Following the new coalition government's first comprehensive spending review (CSR), which saw the budgets of government departments cut on average by 19% to tackle the U.K.'s public deficit, the science budget has been protected, ensuring it the same monetary value (£4.6 billion) for the next 4 years. Although inflation will likely reduce its value by 10% by 2015, most researchers have welcomed this outcome bearing in mind what has happened to other parts of government spending, including defense (cut by 8%), policing (cut 4%), and the Foreign Office (down 24%).

"This is exceptionally good news for science," said David Willetts, minister for universities and science, at a press conference after the announcement. While U.K. scientists have complained that some other countries have responded to the worldwide financial downturn by increasing research spending, Willetts says the United Kingdom has actually done something more long-lasting: "This is not a temporary stimulus package. It's a guaranteed ring-fenced package for 4 years."

The £4.6 billion annual science budget includes £2.75 billion for Britain's seven research councils, which distribute grants, run national facilities, and take part in international collaborations such as CERN and the European Southern Observatory. The budget also provides £1.6 billion "quality-related" funding, which is given as block grants to the best-performing university departments, and £100 million for the various academies, including the Royal Society. International collaborations such as CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, look safe for the time being. "We have no immediate plans to disengage from any international projects, though we will be working to keep costs down," Willetts says.

One thing that has not been included in the science budget presented today is capital expenditure. Any infrastructure spending must come from the capital budget of Cable's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which as a whole will be cut by 25% over the 4-year CSR period. "Capital spending is a loose end. We will be looking at it separately," says Willetts. Two projects that have definitely been guaranteed funding are new beamlines for the Diamond synchrotron near Oxford and the new UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI), due to open in London in 2015. Completion of UKCMRI was made possible by the Department of Health chipping in £200 million. "Over the coming weeks, we will identify other projects" to receive capital funding, Willetts says.

According to the minister, BIS and the Department of Health have agreed that overall government spending on health research "should be stable in real terms," over the next 4 years--in other words, protected from inflation. Willetts and the government's chief science adviser John Beddington have also been working to ensure that other ministries receiving major cuts do not hack into their own departmental R&D budgets to compensate. "We've been reminding colleagues regularly of the importance of R&D in their own budgets," Willetts says. These other departmental research budgets have not yet been revealed; Willetts says there may be a modest reduction in defense R&D but that health and environmental research are in good shape. "We have a feeling that this issue has been understood."

That the science budget will be eaten away by inflation over the next 4 years has dismayed many researchers. But Willetts highlights that efficiency savings could more than compensate for inflation. He cited a recent report into U.K. physics by Bill Wakeham, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, that identified many possible areas for cost savings. Efficiency savings of more than 30% will also be expected in the operating costs of the research councils' headquarters in Swindon and London, Willetts says.

The previous Conservative government in the 1980s and '90s cut back severely on research spending, which caused a lengthy brain drain. Willetts says the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is not going down the same path. "One thing that has changed is the level of empirical evidence that the scientific community can generate about its own research activity. That evidence really helped the debate," he says.

Science will have more coverage of the U.K. science budget in next week's issue. Meanwhile, here is some of the reaction from the scientific community in statements released since the CSR announcement:

Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust:

I am delighted that the Government has recognised the huge importance of science to the future prosperity and health of the U.K. economy and people. The Government has listened to the voices of the science community who argued that continued investment in science was vital to the U.K.'s future success. It is now up to the science community to ensure it delivers on this crucial vote of confidence.

John Bell, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences:

Now is the time to focus on the funds that will be available in the coming years and to ensure that these funds are spent effectively. We must maintain the ability to regenerate key areas when more funding becomes available. This will allow the U.K. to remain a competitive part of the international research endeavour and exploit opportunities for support from industry and charities both in the U.K. and overseas.

Robert Ward, policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics:

The freezing of the Science Budget will mean that it escapes bigger cuts than other areas of public spending. The Science Minister deserves praise for convincing the Treasury that support for our world-class researchers is essential to ensure future economic growth and prosperity. However, the Science Budget freeze means that the Government's investment will be standing still over the next four years while our international competitors will be increasing the pace of their spending on research and development.

John Beddington, government's chief scientific adviser:

This is a genuine signal that the Government recognises that science and research are vital in driving growth and securing a strong economic recovery. The U.K. has a world leading tradition of excellence. This month for example we have seen U.K. scientists awarded Nobel prizes both in Physics and medicine, as well as Economics. The U.K. is also the most productive research nation in the G8, producing 14% of the most highly-cited papers, 9% of world research publications, whilst making up only 1% of world population.

Michael Spyer, President of the Physiological Society:

Government must protect and increase allocation of funds to resource-intensive laboratory-based education and research. If the U.K. is going to sustain its excellence in physiology research and education it is critical that investment increases again after the structural deficit is addressed.

Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society:

The flat cash settlement for the core science budget is very welcome news in the context of this extremely tough Spending Review. There remain areas of concern, especially with regard to capital spending, and the funding of universities. But this outcome enhances our optimism that such issues can be addressed on the basis of a genuine realisation that it is in the U.K.'s interests to remain among the world leaders in key areas of science and innovation.

Evan Harris, former Liberal Democrat science spokesperson:

The science community will be relieved by this settlement, but we know that even 10% real terms cuts will be painful, will need reversing as soon as the fiscal position improves, and we must watch out for the impact of any cuts in capital spending or in R&D budgets across Government.

Simon Gaskell, principal of Queen Mary College, University of London:

The flat-cash settlement for science is much better news than was feared and suggests that the arguments for the fundamental economic importance of scientific research have been heard and at least partly understood. Significant challenges remain but it is important that universities, collectively and individually, emphasise that the U.K. remains an outstanding environment for the conduct of research.

Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation:

Immediate reaction? Relief that science has been spared the deepest of cuts. Followed swiftly by the realisation that even at about 10% down, we'll be playing catch-up in an international field which could see U.K. science left behind. We will have to wait before the full picture becomes clear, but it's likely charities will now come under greater pressure to fund more medical research. Charities invest over a £1 billion each year in vital medical research.

Mark Downs, chief executive of the Society of Biology:

A 10% cut over 4 years is a significant blow to the U.K.'s competitiveness. The Government has failed to recognise what all charities know: an economic downturn is the time to invest in fundraising to ensure future prosperity. It is research and development, coupled with skilled people that will deliver growth. Our international competitors have recognised that: the coalition government has yet to fully accept that reality.

Malcolm Grant, president and provost of University College London:

The quality—and value for money—of British science is outstanding. The Chancellor's recognition of its economic value is truly welcome. I hope that even with the reduced funding that this announcement implies, Britain can continue to train and recruit the best in the world and to lead in scientific discovery, innovation, improving the lot of mankind and the planet.

Colin Blakemore, former head of the Medical Research Council:

It is wonderful to learn that Government has listened to the scientific community. Collectively we have made the case that funding science is not a cost but a way to invest in creating a stronger economy which is the best way to guarantee the recovery that will benefit everyone. It will now be important to maintain the dialogue with government as it reviews budgetary commitments for the future.

Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering:

A 10% cut over 4 years is significant, especially at a time when our competitors like the U.S. and Germany are having real-terms increases—but today saw an important 'statement of intent' from the coalition. Important questions remain over the details of some of the funding plans—particularly over capital expenditure for Research Councils and universities, funding for the Technology Strategy Board, and the status of R&D tax credits. But the scientific and engineering community will now look forward to engaging constructively with the government on how to put research at the heart of the UK's growth agenda.