Science may suffer from departmental budget mistake
A leaked memo obtained by the Guardian suggests that the government is considering cuts to the science budget, in spite of having protected it during the 2010 Spending Review. The document, leaked from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), reveals a £1.4bn budgetary shortfall in the department, and outlines plans to claw back this cash.
The overspend is said to be largely the result of an unexpectedly high demand for student loans, especially from privately-funded higher education institutions. (David Willetts issued a ministerial written statement about this last week.) As well as having potentially serious repercussions for student support, the Guardian also notes the consequences for science:
In an attempt to save a further £215m over two years, the ringfenced science budget, which has already been frozen in real terms, is also expected to be cut by 2%.
A memo warns that the likely fallout of slashing budgets on such a scale and in such haste would be the loss of 700 PhD funded student places and almost 2,000 full-time academics, or the ‘closure of a large UK-based facility’ such as the world-leading Central Laser facility near Oxford.
Research is an area particularly susceptible to short-term financial fluctuations because many scientific budgetary commitments, such as grants and PhD studentships, extend over a number of years. It is usually impossible to cut short existing projects, and thus the only alternative is to award fewer new grants in an unexpected fallow year. The results of this can be catastrophic, with scientists unlucky enough to have grants running out the previous year finding themselves out of work, and possibly being forced to leave science altogether. This is one reason why it is vitally important that science investment be backed with a long-term strategy from the government.
In a department like BIS with a broad remit, cost overruns in one area can go on to affect a range of related and unrelated budgets. Science spending should be set by looking at the size of the problems science is trying to solve—it shouldn’t be based on the somewhat arbitrary and historically determined remits of departments, and it certainly shouldn’t be set depending on the accuracy of demand forecasting for student loans.