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A Not-So Stimulating U.K. Budget

Those hoping for a £1 billion stimulus windfall for United Kingdom science in today’s budget announcement were disappointed. Although there was no new money for research, the U.K. government sought to firm up its commitment to fighting climate change with an even more ambitious target for carbon dioxide reductions and new funding for green manufacturing and low-carbon energy.

Ministers in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills were rumoured last month to be lobbying for a science stimulus package along the lines of the President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Several big name scientists supported the idea in the press. But that dream was shattered today by budget delivered to Parliament by Chancellor Alistair Darling that put more emphasis on cuts and efficiency savings than stimulating the economy.

The government’s green credentials were very much on show, however, with a new commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 34% compared by 2020 to 1990 levels. To help achieve this the Chancellor promised £1 billion for low-carbon industries, £525 million for offshore wind projects, £435 million for energy efficiency, and £405 million to encourage low-carbon energy and advanced green manufacturing. That last pot will fund four pilot coal-fired power plants equipped with carbon capture and storage technology.

These initiatives drew a mixture of responses, ranging from some calling the budget a welcome boost for the green economy, to others labeling it too little too late. Science commentators warned that if the United Kingdom is to make its mark in environmental technology, it needs robust science to underpin innovation. "It must be remembered … that scientific advances—in renewable energy research, in the digital industries that have spurred the communications revolution, and in other important future industries like biotechnology—require a healthy research base. We must continue investing in order to ensure that the U.K. has a healthy pipeline of scientifically trained individuals and to maintain and strengthen our leading position in research and its applications,” says Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics.

The seven U.K. research councils—which distribute grants and fund large research infrastructures—managed to save  £106 million that could have been lost if they were subjected to the efficiency savings the Chancellor is enforcing elsewhere in the government. But this protected money, the budget documents state, must be reinvested “to support key areas of economic potential.” This, according to Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, undermines the independence of the research councils. “There needs to be an urgent review of this decision as it completely destroys the idea the research councils operate at arm’s length from government. Rather than boosting investment in the research base, like our international competitors, the government has moved money around,” he says.