After all the anticipation and preparations – the signed petitions, the consultation responses and the numerous pleas from the science community – George Osborne announced the results of his latest spending review today (26th June). He set out how the Treasury will make £11.5 billion of savings from Government departments for the year 2015-16.
The good news is that the science community are not facing a direct cut and that the Chancellor is to increase the capital budget for science in real terms to £1.1 billion. The MRC will not move to the Department of Health, nor will it face the division of its research and education facets between the two departments. The charity research fund will also be continued.
The bad news is that the Government’s pledge to maintain the science resource budget at £4.6 billion means that, in reality, we will be facing erosion due to inflation. However, George Osborne spoke positively about the benefits of supporting the scientific research base and name-checked synthetic biology and graphene as exemplar economy-boosting technologies. This would suggest that the arguments for the fundamental economic importance of scientific research have been heard and, at least partly, understood. So it may seem that he has ‘come good’ on his declaration that ‘science is a personal priority’. But has he really?
When the fates of several other departments are considered, then perhaps he has. DEFRA and DECC fared particularly badly, with cuts of 10% and 8% overall. Things didn’t go so well for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport either, nor for those who work in the public sector. The Department for Business Innovation and Skills, which houses the science budget, fared comparatively well with a proposed cut of 6%.
But the question of how long we can survive on a steadily eroding ring-fence remains. If the Government want to hold true to their declarations on the vital importance of science, then we need a long term strategy and plan to ensure that scientific research and innovation are fostered for generations to come. While it seems that the Government now understands that public funding of science is crucial to growth, we need to ensure that that understanding is translated into sustained investment. It is vital that the policy of managed decline be reversed.
Time will tell how the science base will fare in the wake of these announcements. But, one thing is for sure, no one will be rushing to shake the hand of George Osborne just yet…