Rosie Walters examines the impact of the spending review on Britain’s standing as a leading scientific powerhouse
In a year filled with change, the comprehensive spending review has been dreaded for a long time. With all parties promising a ‘tightening of belts’ during the election it is only now that we are seeing the full extent of cuts under the new coalition government.
One of the most popular campaigns in the run up to the cuts was the Science is Vital initiative that protested against possible cuts to the science budget and was supported by high profile scientists such as Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and Sir Patrick Moore. With rumours that many government departments were going to see cuts of up to twenty five per cent, Science is Vital put up a fight. With a petition signed by over 36,000 people and a public march, it wanted the government to realise the importance of protecting science funding. The brainchild of UCL cell biologist Dr Jenny Rohn, Science is Vital was supported by hundreds of scientific organisations, including the Campaign for Science and Engineering and promoted by public figures such as comedian Dara O’Brian. So did it work?
In comparison to the welfare sector, some would say that science got off lightly: rather than cuts, it got a freeze, meaning that the £4.6billion budget currently allocated to science spending in the UK will not be falling, but nor will it be going up. Does this mean that the campaign was successful? By all accounts, yes. During the announcement Osborne practically quoted one of the campaign messages: that ‘Britain is a world leader in scientific research, and that is vital to our economic success.’ But even though science spending has been ring fenced to a certain extent, after adjustment for inflation there will effectively be a ten per cent budget cut by 2014 – a lot less than the rumours suggested but still a blow to the British scientific community.
Lord Krebbs, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee welcomed the news, saying that he was pleased that ‘the coalition has recognised that investing in the science base is a key element of economic recovery, and that it is important to maintain the UK’s position at the very top of the international science league.’ But can Britain keep its lead?
The director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering Imran Khan welcomed the news but was cautious to praise it too much as he recognised the influence that cuts would have on our international standing, saying that a ‘10% cut over four years is significant, especially at a time when our competitors like the US and Germany are having real-terms increases’. Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, echoed this reaction. ‘Even at about 10% down we’ll be playing catch-up in an international field which could see UK science left behind.’
Perhaps it is because of the threat of British science taking a back seat on the global stage, that threats of a ‘brain drain’ are being predicted. With PhD places being cut, bright minds are more and more being headhunted for overseas positions and many are choosing to study outside the UK, where research budgets are bigger, facilities are better and fees lower.
Professor Pete Coffey, one of UCL’s stem cell specialists, has been courted by the University of California who have offered him $4.8million to set up a laboratory at the university where he will be able to accelerate his research. Whilst Prof Coffey has promised that this will be a part-time position, and his base will remain in the UK, this does not bode well for the future of British research, whose scientists are increasingly being tempted by prospects abroad.
Although the impact of the spending review was not nearly as severe as once feared, the future of British science has a rocky road ahead. Only time will tell if we will remain the ‘world leader in scientific research’ that Osbourne says we are.