In just under a week’s time the results of the Government’s spending review for 2015-2016 will be revealed. As the science community waits to find out how the research base budget will fair, Science is Vital have published a report into how decisions made during the 2010 spending review have affected scientists in the intervening time.
The last comprehensive spending review resulted in an effective ‘ring fence’ of the science budget. While this might sound positive, in reality it meant a 10% cut due to erosion from inflation. This, combined with previous cuts, means that our Government is amongst the lowest science funders in the OECD of research and development as a percentage of GDP with a figure of 1.79% compared to the EU average of 2% in 2011.
However, the UK science base performs strongly against comparator countries. We are the most productive and efficient country for research in the G8 in per capita terms, and rank second in the world for both scientific excellence and for university-industry collaboration. This remarkable effectiveness means that the science base is often perceived to be able to withstand substantial cuts. But is this really the case? And how many cuts can the science base take before our effectiveness starts to subside?
Not many more, according to the results of the Science is Vital report. They surveyed almost 900 scientists in the UK – ranging from postgraduate students and early career researchers to fellows, senior professors and former researchers – and sought to find out how their ability to do research had been affected by the decline in funding since 2010. Their results were alarming. They uncovered the widespread view that scientific capabilities have been significantly impaired. In particular, many respondents reported that there has been a decrease in the number of grants funded, a decrease in overall money supplied even when grants were funded and difficulty in obtaining necessary equipment or consumable to perform research to modern standards. Furthermore, and perhaps most concerning of all, they reported a lack of confidence in the trajectory and promise of UK science and a view that some of the UK’s competitors are more attractive. In some cases this has served to inspire researchers to leave the UK, or a research career, altogether.
It seems that that if the current funding decline is not soon reversed, we risk seriously damaging our research base, with all the knock-on effects to the economy and to industrial interest that this could induce. To this end, Science is Vital are calling for the announcement of an increase to the budget next week and for the Government to make a longer-term commitment of scientific support, eventually reaching a level of support comparable to the current G8 average. They are running an online petition – sign up here if you haven’t already!
The announcement from George Osborne a couple of weeks back that science is a ‘personal priority’ of his (who knew?!) perhaps indicates that the research base is going to be spared from substantial cuts… but until next Wednesday (the 26th of June) it’s all speculation…