Playing catch up

WilfStevenson.jpgWilf Stevenson on the lack of clarity in the government’s approach to science policy

One of the ongoing activities of the Lords that gets little attention is our Select Committee work. This is unfortunate, as the eclectic membership of the House means that considerable expertise and experience can be assembled to discuss key topics. A prime example is the Committee on Science and Technology, whose report on our scientific infrastructure is discussed today.

As the report recognises, scientific infrastructure plays a key role in maintaining the UK’s reputation for research excellence. Our high quality facilities attract world class researchers, bring investment in from around the world, and enable research projects that support the wealth and welfare of our nation. As the Committee rightly points out, it is important that we maintain and build upon this reputation if we’re to keep up in the global race. 

In its response to the report, the government has relied on the outcome of the 2013 Spending Review, which promises a “long-term commitment to increase science and research capital investment in real terms to £1.1 billion in 2015-16, and then growing in line with inflation each year to 2020-21”. We welcome this, not least because it seems to continue the policy established by the last Labour government of ring-fencing a long term commitment to science, originally established in the 2004 Spending Review. 

But the reality is somewhat different, as one of the first things the Cameron government did was cut the science budget. When we left office in 2010, this was ring-fenced within the Business Department – a measure intended to reassure both the science community and the public that funding would not be raided to help meet shortfalls elsewhere in the remit of the ministry. But that ring-fence hasn't protected the science budget from austerity. It was frozen in cash terms in 2010, and capital spending was given a hefty and damaging cut to about 59% of the previous figure. As a result the budget will be some £500,000 short of where it would have been if our plans had been left in place. 

Things may also get worse before they get better. It is widely believed that BIS (which makes science policy and provides funds for the UK-wide research councils) is going to have to make cuts of over £100m from yearly science spending, starting next year. Such cuts have come about because higher education funding is now unsustainable due to a combination of wrong-headed decisions by BIS (such as increased student loan write offs) and its decision to allow £950m of public funds to flow freely into the pockets of private education providers. Together, this has created a black hole that needs plugging – currently estimated to be £90bn by 2042.

We will press Ministers to make good this shortfall; and also explain why they haven’t honoured the commitment to long term stable funding. Surely as a country, we should have learned by now that uncertainty around science spending will be damaging as universities, research groups and others plan for the future.  

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is a Shadow BIS Minister in the House of Lords

Published 13th May 2014

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