Scienceogram UK

Making sense of science spending

FAQ: Facebook asks questions

Facebookers may have noticed that the Scienceogram’s government spending graphic was featured on I F**king Love Science, a science fan page with nearly five million ‘likes’.

I F**cking Love Science

As well as thousands of likes and shares, the image received hundreds of comments. We decided to wade through them, answer some of the common queries, and highlight a few interesting observations.

Looking at these numbers per person rather than overall is crucial to the Scienceogram for two reasons: firstly, it brings unintelligible billions down to a scale we’re all used to, and, secondly, it allows us to compare between countries with different populations. For a full explanation, see our blog post ‘Why do we need the Scienceogram?’

Indeed, looking at these figures per person allows exactly these kinds of comparisons with your personal spending, and shows that spending more on science could be very cheap per person. We were unable to find any specific figures for the size of the UK toy car market, however!

By far the most common observation was that we’d included a large miscellaneous ‘other’ category, coming in at £3500 per person per year, including all items of government spending not explicitly mentioned in the graphic—and there were only five! This category includes everything from parks to policing, collecting rubbish to building roads. Indeed, a few pounds per person per year even go on running parliament, including politicians’ salaries. To go into more depth would make this a pretty massive infographic…and, in fact, we’ve made one. Our Cashogram infographic goes into a lot more depth with government and personal spending, and indeed inspired the Scienceogram in the first place. There’s also a breakdown of UK public spending compiled by the Guardian—it’s not divided up per capita, but it’s still worth a look.

The annual pensions bill for the UK is a little over £1300 per person, which is a good third of the ‘social protection’ budget. Winter fuel is another £50. There are other benefits that advantage the elderly in less direct ways too. Another common misconception about benefits is that fraud is rife: in fact, benefit fraud and error is estimated by the government to cost approximately £54 per person per year; some 2% of overall benefit expenditure.

If you earn the average salary, these figures are actually pretty close to what you pay in tax. Firstly, don’t forget that you pay quite a bit of ‘indirect tax’: things like VAT, fuel duty, and so on. Once you take this into account, the whole-population figure is approximately the same as that per taxpayer: if you earn the median salary of £19,600, your taxes plus the per capita deficit makes a total of £9900; within 10% of the £11,000 per capita figure.

In the end, it’s just simpler to use a straight per capita figure—especially since, for many people, this number will be about the same anyway. There’s a full explanation at the bottom of the government spending page.

We agree! Though science funding is definitely the most shocking item when you look at the budget in pounds per person, we’d like to see more politicians and news outlets using figures on this scale where they can make sense. More graphs and numbers in politics would be a great thing to see: this graph, from the 2010 UK General Election, shows that, in spite of fierce rhetorical differences, the three main parties’ spending and taxation plans were actually remarkably similar. It would be great if politicians could lay out their plans more clearly for voters.

This is an interesting idea—whilst there are obviously limitations to the analogy between high-tech companies and countries, this might provide one way of trying to come up with a sensible level of investment in research.

The public/private debate continues to rage, and we plan to address our reasons for concentrating on public investment in science in a future blog post. In short, public funding plays a crucial role in research and discovery because much science inherently involves far higher risks than investors are willing to take. The state needs to pick up those projects which have a tiny chance of a huge reward, whilst investors can get a more reliable return on safer, more modest projects. There’s also a vital interplay between the two, with state subsidy underlying much private R&D, and public funding of research signalling a commitment to science and providing trained employees which encourages private firms to invest.

So it’s vital we continue to support state-funded science, but private enterprise has an important role to play too.

Nothing that we know of, but we’re very keen to collaborate with others to create international Scienceograms. Get in touch if you’re interested, or if you’d like some advice on how to get started.

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