Coalition ‘signals desire’ to support science research

The government has frozen its science research budget for the next four years under the spending review announced today.

Research funding will be kept at £4.6bn a year until 2015, representing a fall of around 10 per cent in real terms due to inflation.

Minister for science David Willetts said he hoped this drop could be made up through efficiency savings.

‘We have here a fantastic deal for the science community as a result of the coalition government appreciating the extraordinary value of the high-quality research base we have in this country,’ he said at a press conference.

While recognising that other nations were increasing their research budgets, he commented that some of these increases were temporary. ‘This is not a temporary stimulus package,’ he said. ‘This is a guaranteed ring-fenced budget for four years.’

He also pointed to a recent report on the cost of research in UK higher-education institutions led by Sir Bill Wakeham, which recommended efficiency savings of five per cent annually.

The £4.6bn does not include capital spending on science projects. This will be included the capital budget of the Department of Business, Skills and Innovation (BIS), which will fall from £1.8bn in 2010/11 to £0.8bn in 2013/14, rising to £1.0bn the following year.

Medical research, meanwhile, will be protected in real terms under the Department for Health’s budget, including £220m to fund the UK Centre for Medical Research Innovation. But the Ministry of Defence’s research budget has yet to be confirmed.

The exact breakdown of the science research budget is yet to be decided but Willetts suggested it would broadly follow the existing deal.

Currently, research councils receive £2.75bn, £1.6bn goes to quality-related (QR) funding in universities, £0.1bn goes to academies, and £0.15bn to the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF).

Research council administration budgets are not included within the budget and Willetts said he was looking for substantial savings of around 30 per cent or more in this area and would be ruthless on back-office functions.

The science budget includes two of the main bodies that fund technology research, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), but not the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

‘We see the TSB as playing a crucial role in the future. It can both pick up some of the responsibilities of the individuals RDAs at a national level and is a vehicle for driving our development agenda,’ said Willetts.

Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CASE) Imran Khan said the government had signalled a desire to support science and engineering.

He said: ‘A 10 per cent cut over four years is significant, especially at a time when our competitors such as the US 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 TSB, and the status of R&D tax credits.’