Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Science funding: the year in review

A 'review of the year' has a seasonal ring to it, but there is little festive in the news for Britain's scientists, researchers and teachers in Higher Education. The major economic powers (let's stick to the G8 countries, of which the UK is one) have had to deal with unusually severe economic conditions, and all G8 countries are making budget cuts and decisions about where best to spend their tax revenues. It is interesting therefore to consider how the UK's leading competitors have dealt with HE and research, with regard to the choices of 'cut', 'do nothing' or 'invest'. For brevity I will focus only on the USA, France and Germany, and summarise how these countries have responded to the financial squeeze in terms of HE/science funding. Blocks of text in gray are taken more or less verbatim from the original news articles.

Direct comparisons are inevitably tricky due to national differences in ministerial portfolios, definitions and emphasis, but read on and be in no doubt as to the picture that emerges. With the US HE system being largely privately funded one must necessarily focus on the publicly funded research budget. Early in the year President Obama announced his 'stimulus package', an extra $10bn for the NIH to spend over two years. Notwithstanding the point made by many US researchers that the short time-frame of the fund was not ideal, the clear message was that the US view is that research should be stimulated at a time of financial hardship.

Next up was Germany. In June the German chancellor announced an award of some €2.7bn in research funding to German universities and research institutions. The funding will form part of an overall €18bn (new money over the next 10 years) investment in science and education, the largest such single amount in Germany's post-war history. (See and So Germany too appears to take the view that investment in HE and research is a critical card to play in a recession-busting budget.

Then a few weeks ago, step up France. Valérie Pécresse, the HE and research minister revealed that her portfolio was "the top priority for the 3rd year running". Earmarked spending for HE and research is up, including inflation, 5.3%, to €29.2bn from this year's €27.7bn. As for research itself, it will receive a boost of €804 million. Moreover, another €731 million were injected into Pécresse's budget this year, including €286 million for research, as part of the government's economic recovery plan. (see So even France, cash-strapped with it's huge public spending commitments, sees HE and research as of the highest priority when it comes to digging itself out of recession.

Finally, in December, it was the turn of UK chancellor Alistair Darling to announce er, a cut of £600 million in spending for HE/research by 2012. Given that successive UK governments have historically always spent less than their G8 competitors (in terms of %GDP) on HE/research, to impose a cut on an already severely stretched budget defies comprehension. Today's announcement from meddling Mandelson of an immediate cut of more than £500 million for universities (which may or may not be part of the £600 million), confirms the view of the UK government that HE/research is not a high priority, that it is perhaps something of an extravagance, and certainly not the route out of recession.

Why is the UK so strikingly out of line with the other major economic powers? It doesn't seem to be a simple question of political ideologies, since the US, France and Germany represent a reasonable spread of political thought. Moreover, the Tory Shadow Science Minister, Adam Afriyie, recently posted a blog in the New Scientist ( that eulogised about British science in tones similar to those we hear from the current administration, but with little substance and much about encouraging 'public debate', and presenting 'clear arguments' to the public as to why science is important. If this is Tory science policy it is uncontaminated by substance, conveniently inexpensive, and conceals not a jot of a commitment to increasing science funding.

I noticed a recent Tweet that exhorted scientists and HE teachers to march on Whitehall. Let's do it (the French would). And let's make Mandelson and his cronies explain why they think the UK has got it right, and France, Germany and the US have got it wrong.

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