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HEi-think: Good news for Science and Innovation but funding worries remain

Professor Martin Barstow, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Leicester, welcomes commitment to science funding in the government’s new Science and Innovation Strategy, but worries that threatened across-the-board cuts could still hit science and research budgets.

 

There is much to be welcomed in the UK Government’s Science and Innovation Strategy that has just been published.

High quality science and innovation requires long-term investments, often in large facilities and specialist laboratories, on timescales that transcend the usual planning horizons of politicians. Therefore, the strategy’s capital investment is a major step forward in providing a framework - perhaps the best we have ever had - for the UK to participate in important international projects coupled with national facilities.

Highlights, some of which were announced earlier, include contributions to the European Space Agency Mars exploration programme and three new European projects: the Extremely Large Telescope, Free Electron Laser and Spallation Source. In addition new national programmes include the Sir Henry Royce Materials Institute in Manchester and investment in “Big Data” facilities at the British Library and Hartree Centre in Cheshire. There will also be important investments on smaller scales in university teaching and research laboratories, which are particularly welcome after several years of limited investment at this level.

There are some questions as to how investment priorities will be set. While the importance of the Haldane principle is reiterated, there is little detail on how projects will be selected in the future.  It is essential that the process be fully informed by appropriate consultation and scientific peer review to ensure that the money is well spent and to avoid the potential impression of the government funding “pet projects”.

This capital programme will help the UK remain at the forefront of science research and take on leadership roles in major international projects. However, the published strategy tells us much less about the other side of the investment coin – funding for students, to train the next generation of scientists, and researchers to exploit the investment in projects and populate the new facilities.

While science research funding has enjoyed relative protection, with “flat cash” during the economic downturn, inflation has inevitably eroded the volume of activity supported. Recent economic projections predict further across-the-board cuts to government expenditure. If these cuts hit the research councils the promised capital investment will not be able to deliver the benefits expected. It is somewhat worrying that the strategy falls short on commitments to ring-fence the science budget and to increase the recurrent budget to support the capital investment.

Another part of the funding equation is the financial climate in higher education, where, despite the £185 million contribution to support high cost subjects (STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) mentioned in the strategy, the combined income from student fees and government does not meet the actual cost of teaching these subjects. Consequently, there are serious pressures on the financial stability of STEM departments in universities, which will eventually be detrimental to the quality and capacity of both teaching and research.

Despite my reservations about some of the detailed Science and Innovation Strategy, it remains a major commitment to science funding and recognition by the Government of its importance, not only for its own sake, to further knowledge, but also as significant contributor to the health of the economy. Proposals to further develop the Catapult network and Innovate UK programmes will enable the UK to improve the translation of its research into economic and societal benefit.

 

For an HEi-know summary of all key points from the Science and Innovation Strategy, see our Briefing Report 225

 

 

Professor Martin Barstow
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