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Science and Politics in the United Kingdom

Science and politics in the United Kingdom have enjoyed a summer of love, but now the holidays draw to a close. Universities, policymakers, and politicians prepare to return to the fray, and the detailed decision making due during the coming months about allocation of new funds announced in the summer will test just how strong the new relationship is. Hopes are high. "We're seeing a renaissance of British science," enthused Ian Gibson (Labour, Norwich North), chair of the House of Commons Sel

By | September 2, 2002

Science and politics in the United Kingdom have enjoyed a summer of love, but now the holidays draw to a close. Universities, policymakers, and politicians prepare to return to the fray, and the detailed decision making due during the coming months about allocation of new funds announced in the summer will test just how strong the new relationship is.

Hopes are high. "We're seeing a renaissance of British science," enthused Ian Gibson (Labour, Norwich North), chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology. As an adherent of the hard left, Gibson is not a natural supporter either of Prime Minister Tony Blair or "new labour" policies. Gibson's comment was in response to questions about the significance for science of the national spending review for 2002/03 to 2005/06 published in July. This review allocated an average increase of 10% per year in real terms to the science budget administered by the Office of Science and Technology for the Department of Trade and Industry. This takes science spending from £2 billion in 2002/03 to £2.9 billion by 2005/06. Increases to the Department for Education and Skills to support science at institutions of higher education means that the total increase in science spending for the period will be £1.25 billion (figures for research within other departments will not be known until later this year).

Given that the increase in the science spending followed a 15% boost in funding in real terms for the period 1998/99 to 2000/01, it was hard to find naysayers. Even Peter Cotgreave, director of Save British Science and outspoken critic of the science policy of successive UK governments, was uncharacteristically positive, saying that the spending review was genuinely good for British science.

However, when examined in comparison with the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) spent by other nations on science (a figure that includes government, industry, and charity spending), the increases serve only to reverse a previously widening gap between the United Kingdom and some of its competitors. Figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for example, show that in 2000 the United Kingdom was spending 1.83% of GDP, placing it fifth in the G7 league compared to nearly 2.4% and a second-place ranking in 1981. Such figures are not always the best comparisons or means of determining what is being spent by government or industry, cautions Luke Georghiou, head of Policy Research in Engineering, Science and Technology (PREST) at the University of Manchester.

The situation, according to the UK government's analysis, is that most of the decrease in spending as a percentage of GDP is attributable to cuts in defense R&D and reduction in industry's investment in research. Other G7 countries, says this analysis, experienced the reduction in defense R&D but, unlike the United Kingdom, made a commensurate increase in civilian spending. The hope Gibson speaks of, therefore, is because government spending of civilian research is increasing at rates above inflation.

It is not only research itself that stands to benefit, but also two issues that have annoyed British scientists for some time: the low pay of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, and underinvestment in research equipment. Part of the £1.25 billion increase for the next three years is intended to address these problems. By 2005/06, the PhD stipend is set to rise to a minimum of £12,000, and salaries for postdoctoral researchers to increase by £4,000 over the period. The government is also establishing a capital fund for research equipment and will contribute £300 million per year by 2005/06, with the Wellcome Trust investing an additional £200 million.

Underinvestment in research infrastructure first came to the fore as an issue in the early to mid-1990s and was tackled by the conservative and then Labour governments. A study of research equipment released last month by PREST for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) says that after the first two rounds of grants awards by a fund established in 1998, some £271.6 million of alpha-plus rated proposals (highest rated proposal in terms of quality and need) for equipment and £478.3 million of alpha-rated proposals remained unfunded. Even those who had been successful faced cuts.

PREST's report was completed earlier this year as part of the HEFCE's submission to the government spending review. It did not attempt to quantify whether British scientists currently have sufficient access to top-quality research equipment, but it did conclude that in certain institutions scientists do have access to the equipment they need to compete internationally, but that they do not get the equipment as soon as their peers in the United States. Though Cotgreave welcomes the increase for research equipment, he says it is a shame it will not all be fully available until 2005/06.

Money, although clearly important, is not the only determinant of the fate of British science. Qualitative issues have been at stake in recent years. Among these are: public perception of science and scientific advice in the light of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and foot-and-mouth disease, and the impact of protesters against animals in research and genetically modified (GM) crops on scientists and commercial investment decisions. To tackle the first, the government has initiated a review by the chief scientific adviser, aided by external assessors, of the quality of departmental scientific advice. The latter two are less tractable, though recent legislation now makes it an imprisonable offense to threaten scientists involved in animal research.

It was against this background that Blair began the government's summer wooing of science in May with a strongly proscience speech to the Royal Society. Blair urged scientists, the public, and government to a mature debate about ethically difficult issues such as cloning. He put his political weight behind the need for animals in research and testing of GM crops. Given that protesters have destroyed GM crops, and animal rights extremists have threatened scientists and their families, these remarks were welcomed by scientists. Blair said also that he wished the United Kingdom to become the leading world center for stem cell research.

The speech, though, left observers wondering whether Blair would back his views by opening the public purse. The answer following the spending review is "yes." And stem cell research--along with proteomics and neuroscience--was highlighted as a top research priority. What this will mean in terms of hard cash depends on the forthcoming division of funding. And it remains to be seen whether the government opens the public purse wide enough to sustain British science internationally.

Helen Gavaghan (gavers@supanet.com) is a freelance writer in Yorkshire, UK.

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