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Devil's in the detail of UK science boost

"Genuinely very good news" to "cautiously optimistic" covers the range of reactions among scientists to a UK research spending hike.

By | July 20, 2000

LONDON 20 July (Science Analysed) According to the UK Treasury's Public Spending Review for the years 2001–2, 2002–3, and 2003–4, published on Tuesday 18 July, "the combined DTI and DfEE spending on science research will increase at a real average annual rate of 5.4% over the next three years."

The DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) supports the councils that pay research grants, such as the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), plus various public/private research initiatives; and the DfEE (Department for Education and Employment) funds the basic English and Welsh university budgets, including infrastructure and salaries. Scottish and Northern Irish universities are funded regionally.

But what does this 5.4% figure (17% over the three years) mean?The trouble is that the British Government announcements have been so over-marketed and 'spun' in the recent past that most Britons have become jaded and cautious about interpretation. Is there double-counting? What strings are attached to this budget or that?

Today, two days after the announcement, bodies like the Wellcome Trust — a private institution that has grown to dominate biomedicine in the UK, outstripping the spending of the Government's MRC — and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors & Principals expressed themselves to be still in the dark about the detail, despite extensive enquiries."Perhaps we're talking to the wrong people," said Clare Matterson, Head of Policy at the Wellcome. Nevertheless she told BioMed Central she believes a £1 billion infrastructure fund — 'SRIF' (including £225 million from the Wellcome) — included in the 5.4% figure "will make an enormous difference" when added to the existing £750 million 1998 'JIF' fund, which was oversubscribed by £800 million [see BioMed Central article UK science — politicians get the seven-year itch] .

And the Committee of Vice-Chancellors & Principals (CVCP) is "cautiously optimistic" about the Treasury's three-year spending review, although the Minister of Education, David Blunkett, has only announced the consequent detail for the first of the three years. These amount to an extra £100 million for higher education, to be divided into £50 million for recruitment and retention of top academic staff, £20 million for widening access to students from deprived backgrounds, plus funds for the 'e-universities' internet project and for new foundation courses.

Diana Warwick, Chief Executive of the CVCP said: "We now await detail on the figures for the rest of the Spending Review period. Universities have campaigned for additional funds to address the wider issues of staff pay and teaching infrastructure needs. We are disappointed that there is no news on this. Universities expect their share of the announced 6.6% increase in the overall education budget."

The Save British Science movement (SBS), which has long campaigned for better support for science in the UK, however, refused to be cynical. According to Matthew Freeman, a group leader at the Cambridge Laboratory of Molecular Biology and a member of the SBS Executive, "It is genuinely very good news. A 7% per annum increase [including inflation] keeps us on course for a doubling of science spend in 10 years, something that SBS has campaigned for, and which started with the last Spending Review (where science also did well). In fact, I thought this Spending Review was a good test of whether the government was really committed to science or whether they felt that they had bought off the scientists in the last one, and would now move on to politically higher profile issues. In my view they have passed that test well."

"I think this government has taken science to heart" said Freeman. "I like to believe that one of many elements in this was a meeting that SBS had with Tony Blair when he was in opposition. We made the case for science at the heart of a 21st century economy and he was sufficiently interested and concerned that he asked whether, in the gloomy state we were in, UK science could be saved. We answered yes, but it would need considerable new investment."

The science part of the 2001–4 Spending Review is in fact the result of a major interdepartmental review of science spending and efficiency, which according to the Treasury "examined whether science supported by public funds is being conducted and exploited to the benefit of the economy at large. The focus was on how best to deploy DTI and DfEE funds to secure a viable knowledge base — particularly in the universities — and to forge university/business links."The motivation for the 5.4% per annum increase, according to the Treasury is quite clearly economic. The objective is: "to improve the overall international ranking of the UK's science and engineering base, as measured by international measures of quality, cost-effectiveness and relevance; increase the level of exploitation of technological knowledge derived from the science and engineering base, as demonstrated by a significant rise in the proportion of innovating businesses citing such sources."As for science supported by other government departments, the Review also "underlined the importance of research in modernising public service delivery." As a result, over and above the 5.4% for the DTI and DfEE, there will be "anticipated real terms rises" in the biggest civil R&D programmes — those of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food, the Department of Health, and the Department of Environment, Transport & the Regions, although these remain unquantified.

Also included in the DfEE's increase will be £20 million next year, rising to £50 million by 2003–4, "to build on universities' potential as drivers of economic growth through knowledge transfer." According to the DTI this will include: "more seed venture funding to commercialise research; more science enterprise centres to help train the next generation of entrepreneurs; and trebling the reach-out funding for higher education [a currently £20 million budget called 'HEROBC', Higher Education Reach-Out to Business and the Community] to develop closer links with business by 2003–4.

<p> Table 1 </p>

The treasury's exact figures for the future science spend at the DTI and DfEE are:

Year

2000–1

2001–2

2002–3

2003–4


DTI Science budget

1 638

1 776

1 920

2 165

DfEE Science budget*

982

1 070

1 113

1,141


Total spending on science and research (£ million)

2 620

2 846

3 033

3 306

*HEFCE figures for 2002–3 and 2003–4 are estimates

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