Scienceogram UK

Making sense of science spending

UK science budget 2010–2015: what’s changed?

Has the Coalition been cruel or kind to science? After the Budget yesterday, and based on new data from a report by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, we wanted to work out what’s happened to research funding since the Coalition took power.

The headline figure is the total public spending on research and development, provided by the official SET Statistics. These government figures are a few years behind the times so, at the moment, we can only look at the first year of the Coalition government. Total public spending on science fell from £173 per person in 2009–10 to £161 in 2010–11; a 7% cut, and the largest real-terms drop in research spend per capita since the SET data began in 1986.

However, since then, things have got a bit more complicated. First, a bit of background. Public funding of science happens through several different channels:

  • Direct government funding of universities and individual research projects: the so-called ‘science budget’.
  • Direct government funding of capital spending (machines and buildings) and admin—what we call ‘other’ on the diagram below.
  • Funding of research through government departments, such as the Department of Health funding clinical trials.
  • European funding, which is allocated by the EU, but ultimately paid for by individual countries’ contributions.
  • One-off ‘windfalls’ from government which are not part of any annual budget.

After the 2010 spending review, the Coalition announced, to much fanfare and after a strong campaign from scientists, that the science budget would be frozen in cash terms. The first issue with this is obvious: the effects of inflation have and will continue to erode how much science can be done per pound spent. Whilst obviously not ideal, with talk of 25% cuts being bandied around, the science community could be satisfied with this settlement.

As the dust settled, however, it became clear that the government had been slightly sneaky: they’d redefined the ‘science budget’ before freezing it. Previously, capital spending had been included within the science budget, but the spending review separated them, and slashed the former.

A cut in capital combined with inflation would have been terrible news for science, but for the fact that the Coalition has been rather generous with unexpected windfalls. (Recently, for example, the Chancellor announced during his Autumn Statement that science and technology would receive an extra £600m, for projects from synthetic biology to high-performance computing.) These cash injections more than offset the cuts made to date, but don’t cancel out the reductions across the whole spending review period, 2010–15.

So, what’s the combined effect of all this? Looking at figures in 2010 pounds per person per year (i.e. correcting for inflation, and dividing by the population of the UK), and making the simplifying assumption that all windfalls are spent in the year that they were announced, the total direct government funding of science looks something like this:

UK science budget, 2010–15 (2013 estimate)

So direct government funding of science has actually gone up slightly in real terms since 2010 (not forgetting the simplification about spending windfalls all at once). However, without even larger windfalls in the next couple of years, science funding will see a significant real-terms cut.

As mentioned above, this graph does not include departmental funding: total government spending on research is about £160 per person per year, and most of the remaining £70/p/y or so is funded through other government departments. Though up-to-date data on departmental research budgets are piecemeal, a CaSE report suggests that these budgets are being cut disproportionately.

What can we make of all this?

Firstly, it would be easy to come away with the impression that these budgeting decisions were made for political reasons: the announcement of a freeze to the science budget played well for the government, and drip-feeding back the surreptitiously cut cash in a series of high-profile announcements provides good PR, without the need to spend any more than would have been spent originally.

However, it might not be so wise politically: this dependence on irregular budgetary top-ups makes for an uncertain environment for scientists and high-tech business in the UK. This makes it difficult for those working in R&D to plan effectively, and might reduce confidence from multinational companies considering investments in the UK.

Perhaps the most interesting policy issue raised by these governmental sweeteners is how the money has been targeted. The windfalls have largely been earmarked for a range of specified projects, from green computing to graphene. Where to direct research money has typically been the domain of practising scientists via peer-review panels; instead, these decisions about the allocation of science funding were made at the highest levels of government. This might be controversial in some quarters, but broad-brush direction of funding by central planning isn’t perhaps totally unreasonable in a democracy: it’s just a shame that this has happened without the opportunity for consultation or debate.

So it seems that the policy implications of the Coalition’s science budgeting are as broad, and uncertain, as the financial ones.

Most importantly, however, these variations in science spending don’t address the Scienceogram’s broader point that science funding is dwarfed by the problems that science is trying to solve. Comparisons with the previous government’s planned science budget aren’t actually that interesting. We’ve not got proof that Labour would have spent at that level anyway; nor, crucially, was it chosen as part of a plan to make sure that investment in science is commensurate with the challenges in health, energy and so on that we will face over the coming decades.

Whatever happens to the myriad science funding statistics, nothing in the political pipeline at present will affect the Scienceogram’s key message: more spending on science still makes sense.

Categories: politicsScience is Vital


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