U.K. science spared the budget ax and bolstered against inflation

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U.K. science spared the budget ax and bolstered against inflation

For many research advocates, the news today was a huge relief: Funding for science in the United Kingdom will remain constant in real terms at £4.7 billion per year until 2021, according to a government spending review released today. “Hugely welcome news," says Imran Khan of the British Science Association in London. “Hugely encouraging,” adds Dominic Tildesley, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, also in London. Others, however, noted that many details remain unclear.

Scientists were bracing for cuts. In preparing for its 4-year spending plan, the government had asked its departments to suggest budgets cuts of 25% to 40%. The Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), which funds the majority of U.K. science, will see its budget gouged by 17% to £11.5 billion in fiscal year 2020–21. But science funding will be protected, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said in a speech to the House of Commons today. Over the past 5 years science funding has been kept at the same cash level, so is worth 6% less today than in 2010 because of inflation, pointed out Nicola Blackwood, chair of the Science and Technology Committee in the House of Commons. During this parliament, the science budget will rise in step with inflation.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, a private medical foundation based in London, is “reassured” by the protection of science funding, but cautions that “policies that essentially amount to flat cash—even if protected in real terms—can only be absorbed for a limited time.”

In his speech, Osborne touted several other recently announced initiatives, including a “global challenges” fund that will spend £1.5 billion over 5 years for research into infectious diseases including malaria and Ebola. Alison Clough, acting chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry in London, queries the math and says her organization wants to know more about the global challenges fund. “Promising to protect the budget, while at the same time adding new funding commitments, could mean a cut in real terms.”

Biomedical research funded through the National Health Service will remain roughly static at £5 billion over the period, and will include more than £400 million over 8 years to consolidate several public health labs across the United Kingdom at one site in Harlow.

Osborne announced a doubling of investment in energy research, including £250 million for small modular reactor development and other nuclear R&D. That news was small consolation to proponents of carbon capture and storage; the government today canceled a £1 billion competition to commercialize new technology in that area.

Capital expenditures for science, which are handled separately, will total £6.9 billion between 2015 and 2021. This will pay for a new £150 million Dementia Research Institute and science labs at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs worth £130 million. In addition, £75 million will be put toward renovation of the University of Cambridge physics department’s Cavendish Laboratories, which will be matched by the university.

Osborne also announced that BIS would move ahead with a recommendation to reconfigure its existing seven research councils under a new umbrella organization called Research UK.