U.K. Masks Cuts to Science By Redefining 'Science Budget'

Despite promises by the U.K. government last year that its science budget would stay level between 2010 and 2015, a new analysis concludes that the government has masked cuts by redefining what is and isn't included in its science budget.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), a lobbying group, estimates that spending on science will drop 12% by the 2014-15 fiscal year, before taking inflation into account. That is £1.6 billion worse off in cash terms. They say those cuts don't show up in the government's tally of science spending, however, because much of the reduction comes in spending on capital projects—such as new buildings and equipment—which the newly elected Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government last year moved outside of the science budget. "The reduction in capital spending, but also the toll of inflationary pressures, will restrict the opportunities for investment in science and engineering over the next few years," says Peter Knight, incoming president of the Institute of Physics.

Within a few months of last year's general election, the new government published a comprehensive spending review, which took a 5-year look forward at spending intentions. It called for spending across all departments to drop, on average, by 19%. Much to the relief of scientists at the time, however, the science budget—administered by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—remained fixed at its 2010 level (£4.6 billion) for the next 4 years.

If the old definition of the science budget had been retained by the new government, however, the cuts would have produced an immediate science spending drop of £200 million, and a total cut of 12% over the 5 years, before inflation, the CaSE analysis concludes.

Other promises from the spending review also come under scrutiny in CaSE's study. The government, for example, pledged that R&D spending by the Department of Health (not part of the science budget) would increase in real terms. But the projected increases, from £1.025 billion in 2011-12 to £1.089 billion in 2014-15, will not keep up with the higher than expected rate of inflation (forecast to be around 4% for 2011). There are also signs, CaSE says, that other government departments are substantially curtailing their in-house research programs.

"This important report highlights the real terms decline in government investment in science," Nancy Rothwell, president of the Society of Biology, said in a statement. The survey's message is "disquieting," added Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society. "The U.K.'s cost-effective science base and university system are at risk."