CSR Update – Science Question Time at the Royal Institution

The outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review appears to be as good an outcome as could have been expected considering the fiscal climate but, as ever, the devil will be in the detail.

The outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review appears to be as good an outcome as could have been expected considering the fiscal climate but, as ever, the devil will be in the detail. Some general policy indicators have been given by the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, at two recent events – a Science Question Time at the Royal Institution on Tuesday 26 October and at the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee (P&SC) lunch the following day.
Both events represented somewhat of a 'love-in' with the distinguished panel at the Science Question Time and members of the P&SC roundly applauding David Willetts for his pivotal role in securing the outcome. In turn Willetts noted that the quality of the evidence and the coherence and breadth of the campaign mounted by scientific community, including Science is Vital, certainly helped in ensuring the Treasury listened.
Willetts broadly outlined the basic figures involved in the frozen budget. £4.6 billion in Government funding will be preserved for the next four years and, although the detailed allocation has to be decided, the breakdown will remain at:

•    £2.7bn to the Research Councils
•    £1.7bn to HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England)
•    £0.1bn for the Academies
•    £0.15bn for HEIF (Higher Education Innovation Fund)

The science settlement also confirmed that £220 million will be invested in the construction of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation at St Pancras as well as £69 million allocated to the Diamond Synchrotron facility in Oxfordshire (in partnership with the Wellcome Trust).
However one large cloud still remains on the horizon – the capital expenditure for BIS’s (Department for Business, Innovation & Skills) budget has been cut from £1.8 billion to £1 billion, including capital investment in universities through HEFCE. The specific impact on the university sector is still to be concluded and some work remains to be done to ensure that any reduction in capital funding for science is minimised: if the UK life science base is to retain its global leadership position then it is essential that facilities and equipment are kept up to date.
Willetts also pointed out that the real terms cut in funding will still equate to between 9 and 10%. He hoped that all would work to deliver efficiency savings to minimise this impact.
During the various debates and questions posed at the two meetings, two recurring themes emerged in addition to the welcome for the response – the problems of the Coalition’s immigration policy and the impact of changes to the funding of teaching. In terms of the latter, the Minister stated that the cap was absolute, but that reductions elsewhere could be used to increase the mobility of senior scientists.
Some of the announcements this last week did seem a bit ‘back to the future’! Those old enough will remember the Regional Technology Centres set up by the Major Government in the early 1990s, which were subsumed into Labour’s Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). With the demise of the RDAs the Government is setting up a £200 million scheme (over four years) to create a network of elite Technology and Innovation Centres to help bridge the gap between universities and businesses. These will be managed through the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and based on the model proposed by entrepreneurs Hermann Hauser and James Dyson.
However Willetts believes that while the UK must continue to improve its capacity to exploit the excellent research in the science base, he fully recognises the importance of fundamental research. Indeed he noted that not all scientists should be involved so overtly in ‘exploitation’. Rather linking the science and the private sector in different ways, building on the foundations of the TSB, would bring about the desired result. Let’s hope these ideas work: a strong science and technology economy is underpinned by a strong science base, where both 'blues skies' and challenge-led research is recognised as equally important.
 
Dr Philip Wright
Chief Executive