Time to appoint a Treasury CSA

This morning I gave evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on setting science and technology research funding priorities. The inquiry raises a huge, but often neglected, question about UK science and technology policy: who manages the government’s portfolio of investment in R&D? The answer is the Treasury.

The Science Minister is responsible for the Science Budget and the Technology Strategy Board. The Government Chief Scientific Adviser is the closest someone gets to having oversight of departmental R&D budgets, but they are well within the domain of the departments they reside within. The Higher Education minister looks after the research money from HEFCE. RDAs are the responsibility of someone within BIS. The Treasury manages the R&D Tax Credit. But the Treasury also decides on how much money each of the preceding researcher funders get.

The Treasury’s clout is demonstrated in today’s Pre-Budget Report. On page 110 it was announced that by 2012/13  £600 million in savings are to be made from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Science Budget. We will have to wait and see how these cuts are made. The Science Budget is set until 2010/11. If money is taken out of it for that period the government will have have broken the ring-fence. The Science Budget for 2011-2014 has not yet been set, so I don’t know how you save money that has not yet been committed, but if they do they will be undermining the 10 Year Science and Innovation Investment Framework that lasts until 2014. HEFCE’s budget is much less safe and includes teaching as well as research. Other parts of the portfolio are as well. Government department R&D has gone down in real terms from £2,989 million in 1997 to £2,117 in 2007.

Priority setting at the highest level (i.e. who gets the funds) is set by the Treasury. Since the Treasury allocates the broad portfolio of government investment in research they need advice on how to allocate it. The Chancellor should appoint a Chief Scientific Adviser. A Treasury CSA would be responsible for developing the evidence-base to inform the allocation of the portfolio. This could include developing a Science of Science Policy research programme, which would also provide much needed insight to inform the government’s impact agenda.

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