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Science in society – politics, development and social justice.

The Comprehensive Spending Review – the axe has fallen

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It is said of budget announcements that the devil is in the detail; a cliché because it contains more than a grain of truth. The significance of Chancellor Osborne’s spending review will not become clear until the cuts heal clean and circulation returns, or the wound begins to fester into a social and economic sepsis (1).

Scientific research has not fared as badly as was first feared. Sighs of relief and words of warning have sounded across the research community.

So apparently the spending review:

“ensures the UK remains a world leader in science and research by continuing support for the highest value scientific research, maintaining the science budget in cash term over the Spending Review period with resource of £4.6 billion” Page 6 Para 12

£4.6bn in cash terms equates to a nine per cent cut in real terms, spread over four years. No mention has been made of the ‘capital budget’, the money made available to the scientific community for new buildings, equipment and involvement in international programmes. This could well be carefully filleted and therefore feature as one of countless decisions made by governments who can’t see beyond the next election.

An axe blade embeded in a chopping block

Osborne's axe has thunked to rest - time will tell how this affects each of us

Three points concern me most: the language of the above quote, the mutilation of university funding, and the dwindling UK budget against the real terms increases to Germany and the US’s science research budgets.

The decline of Britain’s and the climb of German and American funding is not just worrying for the jingoistic ideals of Britain being great at something other than making cigarettes, bombs and failed banks. Intellectual capital crosses borders with ease in the globalised economy; trying to hold onto researchers and their research is like holding sand in a sieve. Do it gently and the grains won’t fall through the gaps but treat it roughly and the sand will flood out (2).

The universities budget has taken a colossal hit; a 40 per cent slash, amounting to around £4.2bn, £2.9bn from the teaching budget alone. The Russell Group universities that contribute so much to research in this country will no doubt take great pleasure in charging monstrous, multiple thousands of pounds a term fees; pumping up their research budgets by fleecing their students. This will absolutely make the university intake less diverse. I have no doubt that people who could academically enter the so called blue-chip institutions – such as some London colleges, Oxbridge, Durham – will now balk at the price. The threat of saddling themselves with crippling debt may well put off people from studying all together. Decreasing the plurality of the university intake will be to the detriment of UK academia and therefore UK research. Furthermore, I believe, this will make society poorer as a result.

Back to the spending review report’s language. The phrase “highest value science” has rather unpleasant connotations for blue sky research and the less glamorous but still important areas of investigation.

It has been reported that the Medical Research Council (MRC) has had its portion of the budget protected – it will remain constant in real terms (3). The MRC has supported directly or funded 29 Nobel laureates, most recently 2009 winner Venkatraman Ramakrishnan.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is one of the biggest cash funders of the seven councils making it vulnerable to reduction in funding. This imperils the UK involvement in such international projects such as the Large Hadron Collider, European Space Agency and European Southern Observatory. Particle physics and astronomy do not engage public interest and commercial investment in quite the same way as medical sciences. It will be a great shame if this spending review concludes the UK’s investment in these areas. It would be an error that could cost Britain and the global research establishment. It will make the search for discovery much more difficult. We as a species must continue venturing beyond the mouth of the cave, returning with some super sweet photos and stories of how good life could be in the outside world.

To me to comprehend the great mystery of the origin of life and the laws that govern our world represent as great importance and value as the successes in medical research. I believe that if we do not expand our sphere of knowledge we will stagnate. It is in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding that we express our true purpose: explorers in every sense of the word.

1 – Nick Robinson’s blog will provide a well-considered tick over of information and is worth keeping an eye on over the coming weeks

2 – They would spread all over the floor and get in all the cracks between tiles, collect under the dresser and stick to your shoes so they make that really annoying gritty skish sound as you walk about. This is where the analogy falls down. Scientists don’t hide under your sideboard for months on end. This is a source of constant disappointment to me

3 – i.e. it will rise in line with inflation


Written by nascenthack

October 21, 2010 at 9:41 am

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