26 Nov 2015   |   News

Small increase for UK science budget

Scientists express relief as government says the research budget will rise in line with inflation. But innovation grants will be turned to loans, a £1B carbon capture scheme is axed and some R&D spending is shifted to the overseas aid budget

UK science spending is to increase slightly in the next four years with the £4.7 billion budget increasing in line with inflation. This will mean an extra £500 million for science by the end of the decade it was announced this week.

Scientists had been bracing themselves for cuts to the science budget in Chancellor George Osborne’s spending review on Wednesday, which slashed £43 billion of government spending. In the event, the lobbying paid off, though there are cuts to the innovation agency Innovate UK and a high-profile £1 billion carbon capture and storage project has been dropped.

Osborne also announced that the government would implement recommendations made in a recent review by Paul Nurse, the Nobel prizewinning head of the Royal Society, and create a new umbrella organisation, Research UK, to oversee the seven research councils and promote interdisciplinary science.

Nurse said, “The last five years have seen cuts to the science budget of around £1 billion, so protection from such cuts over the next five years is to be welcomed. This settlement does, however, still leave us well behind our competitors in terms of the percentage of our GDP we spend on research."

Under the restructuring the innovation agency Innovate UK, which funds public-private collaboration in innovation through its Catapult centres, will become part of Research UK, and some of its budget will be shifted from grants to loans.

There were funding top ups for several big labs around the country including the Royce Institute in Manchester, which focuses on materials research, and £63 million for new agricultural research centres in Shropshire, York, Bedfordshire and Edinburgh.

Osborne announced £75 million to update the Cavendish Laboratories at Cambridge University, where Crick and Watson made their famous breakthrough in the structure of DNA.

In addition, there will be up to £150 million for a national Dementia Research Institute, which will be the subject of an open competition soon, and £165 million to establish a Defence and Cyber Innovation Fund.

The government also highlighted around £5 billion for health research, including a £1 billion fund to combat malaria and other infectious diseases, launched in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; £250 million for the 100,000 Genomes Project, in which DNA sequencing is being integrated into clinical care in the National Health Service; and £50 million for antibiotic research as part of the UK’s Global Antimicrobial Resistance Research Innovation Fund.

Researchers celebrated the better than expected funding news yesterday. In the last few months many have been willing the Chancellor to top up the amount devoted to R&D, which is small when compared with other advanced countries such as South Korea, France and Germany.

Naomi Weir, acting director of lobby group Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case), said, “I’m delighted to hear the Chancellor backing science with real investment for the next five years. This announcement is great news for the UK and provides a platform to build on for future success.

“It has delivered real investment in science, a decade of support for an industrial strategy, cash protection for Innovate UK, real terms protection of funding for high-cost subjects in HE, and some much needed protection for adult skills funding.”

However, Jeremy Farrar, Director of the research charity Wellcome Trust, was more circumspect saying, “I am reassured to see the government protecting its current level of investment in science. However, policies that essentially amount to flat cash – even if protected in real terms – can only be absorbed for a limited time. In the long term we hope to see the tide turn towards an increase in the stable, long-term investment by government that is essential to strengthening the UK’s global competitiveness, increasing employment opportunities, and delivering wide-ranging societal and health benefits.”

Carbon capture and storage cut

The government scrapped its £1 billion competition for carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology at power stations.

“This an extremely damaging move,” said Jonathan Church, climate and energy lawyer at ClientEarth. “Development of CCS has been delayed for years and by successive governments, and by axing the £1 billion grant to fund these projects, the UK government is essentially closing off one of the key avenues in the UK’s transition to a low-carbon economy.

“Supporting CCS should be a priority and certainly not something wiped out, apparently on a whim, just days before the Paris conference on climate change. This can only exacerbate investor concerns about how the UK’s climate targets will be met; something which will cost, not save, money in the long run,” Church said.

The government also announced a drive to revive the UK’s nuclear expertise with at least £250 million over the next five years for nuclear research and development programme, including a competition to identify the best value small modular reactor design for the UK.

In addition, there were more details of a planned shale gas wealth fund. Up to 10 per cent of shale gas tax revenues will go into the fund, which the government said could eventually be worth £1 billion. To date there has been no shale gas production in the UK.

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