Funding Science and Engineering: The CSR and Beyond

Imran Khan is the Director of CaSE. In this blog he sets out current dangers to science and engineering, the process of the funding decisions, how the sector needs to respond, and challenges on the horizon.

The single question that people have asked me most since I took over as Director of CaSE has been “are you going to change your name back to Save British Science?”

I think they’re only half-kidding.

October’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) will set departmental budgets until 2014. With NHS and international development spending protected, the rest of public spending needs to be cut by 25% in order to meet the Budget.

This bonfire of public spending has the potential to engulf science and engineering, completely restructuring the R&D and education landscape in the UK for years to come. According to the Royal Society, even a 20% cut in funding would be “irreversibly catastrophic for the future of UK science and economic growth,” while Malcolm Grant, Provost of University College London, warned that “many universities will not survive in their present form”.

Other sectors are under threat too. But science’s CSR settlement isn’t just about to the future of our sector; maiming UK R&D will also alter the future trajectory of the UK as a whole. We would wave goodbye to a ‘rebalanced economy’, stifle economic growth, and thwart the recovery. Other countries have already increased their investment in R&D in order to build for the future, and if we do the exact opposite then we risk seeing an unprecedented brain drain as our most talented scientists, engineers, industrialists and technicians leave.

Clearly, it’s time to act.

Is there consensus in the sector?

The first thing to remember is that the CSR will set the funding for science and engineering as a whole – that is, how big the entire funding cake will be. So we need to argue for the importance of science and engineering as a whole, rather than worry about the constituent parts.

The last CSR went into a bit of detail on how, for instance, some money should go towards medical research. But generally the support available for individual types or fields of research – the slices of the cake – isn’t spelled out until later.

This second process – the slicing of the cake – is largely overseen by Prof Adrian Smith, the Director General (Science and Research) at BIS. (However there are other departments with significant research spends, such as MoD, DEFRA, Health, DECC, and DfID, which need to decide their own research budgets too.)

As a prelude to the cake-slicing (is anyone else getting hungry?) Prof Smith wrote to seven organisations – including the CBI, the Royal Society, and the Royal Academy of Engineering – asking how they thought he should wield the knife. The public responses of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering diverged.

The Royal Academy of Engineering argued strongly that there is “no alternative” to refocusing on short to medium term returns for the next decade, and that “this may mean disinvesting in some areas to properly invest in others.” They also name-checked particle physics as a field which “makes only a modest contribution” to today’s societal challenges when compared to engineering and technology, noting that “future potential will never be realised” if we don’t properly equip our economy over the next few years.

The Royal Society, however, focused on potential damage to the science base, saying “whatever short-term measures are necessary, over the medium to longer term the UK must retain its leading scientists and foreign investment”.

A lot has been made of this apparent disagreement. A recent issue of the Financial Times devoted a front page story, page three story, and an editorial to the subject. But to put it into context, this is still a difference of opinion that arose when two learned societies were asked how the cake should be cut. Both the Scientists and Engineers agree that in order to preserve the economic health of the UK policy-makers must continue to support R&D.

And of course this goes beyond the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Everyone in the sector recognises that regardless of how you prioritise – the science base and exploitation, pure versus applied, education against industry, or one –ology against another – that the interconnectedness and interdependency of all disciplines means that in order to defend any one field right now we need to make the economic case for the sector as a whole. This is particularly true given that prioritisation arguments are not really relevant until after the CSR is published.

So how do we do make the arguments?

The scale of public spending cuts announced in the budget means that the Keynesian macro-economic argument – that we need to target more public funding to kick-start the economy – has been lost for the time being. So comparing UK fiscal policy with that of countries which have invested in science stimulus packages – like Germany and the US –  will have limited impact until it’s time for the next budget, however valid those arguments are.

The overriding priority of the coalition Government is to cut the deficit. David Cameron and Nick Clegg underlined that in a letter to their ministers just last week. Therefore the most important argument that needs to be made is the micro-economic one. We need to continue to demonstrate that, historically, investing in science and engineering gives you economic benefits, and that cutting funding will actually lead to costs greater than the immediate savings. For instance, meteorological research actually saves money if it helps you mitigate environmental damage.

CaSE has already worked on this, but we’ll be collaborating with others in the sector to make the argument even more strongly. If you do have data that could help us, please let us know. We are collating economic evidence as well as individual case studies, and the more we have, the stronger our arguments will be.

We also need to be clear that this isn’t just about Government funding. One of the peculiarities of the science and engineering sectors is the very strong interaction between public and private investment. Industrial R&D is made possible and multiplied by state support for education, research, and innovation. If you cut public funding, you risk also losing the private-sector jobs and investment that rely on it. So the activity of industry leaders will be as important – or perhaps even more important – than that of Lords Rees and Browne.

Deciding what to say will perhaps be the easy part. What’s harder is getting your voice heard. CaSE will be working with policy-makers to make sure our evidence is seen. But we also need to get policy-makers to want to see our evidence.

Clearly one avenue for this is the media. We’ll be working to make sure that newsworthy funding stories get exposure. Scientists and engineers can help by making sure that they talk about the impact of funding when they communicate their research to the press.

But those scientists and engineers also have direct power via their votes. There are hundreds of thousands of us who will vote in the next election partly based on how the coalition supports science and engineering, and it’s now that that power needs to be used. We need to be visible and vocal, and most importantly proactive, in catching the attention of ministers and ordinary MPs and showing that this is a political issue as well as an economic one.

MPs are now mostly back in their constituencies for the long summer recess. Scientists and engineers should invite their representatives to visit their labs, universities, or companies, and explain the importance of what they do. And we need to be creative in thinking about what else can be done to convey to politicians the enormous size of the science and engineering constituency nationally.

Challenges on the horizon

The next few months will require a lot of work to secure the best possible settlement for science and engineering in the CSR. But other challenges loom.

The long-term trends in funding are amongst the most obvious. Science and engineering are inherently long-term activities, so require long-term security in order to make doing them worthwhile. If there are cuts, how long are they going to last? If there is economic growth, will science and engineering share in the proceeds?

A consistent message from everyone who is anyone, is that the new Government needs to repeat Labour’s exercise of having a long-term funding framework. This would give them the opportunity to show how, beyond the three years of the CSR, they would like to shape UK R&D. This should include renewing the target of spending 2.5% of our GDP on R&D, a new industrial and manufacturing strategy to exploit and encourage our research base (building on, for instance, the Hauser and Dyson reports), and honouring the science ring-fence.

But there also remains the question of how the funding cake is sliced once its size has been set. The long-standing Haldane Principle states that whilst politicians with their democratic mandate should be able to set over-arching priorities for research – macro-management, if you will – it should be up to the research community to decide for itself how to fulfil those priorities when it comes to spending those funds.

This isn’t simple a philosophical stance of scientists and engineers not wanting to be dictated to, but a recognition that they are at their most productive when not micromanaged, and allowed to go where the technology and inquiry leads.

But we now have the most zealous cost-cutting Treasury for a generation, and it is still the only Whitehall department to lack a Chief Scientific Adviser. Will the Government demand more control over how its research money is spent? A policy statement on the Haldane Principle from Vince Cable’s department is due in October, and it may herald changes in how detailed Adrian Smith’s allocations will be.

The previous Labour administration insisted it held steadfastly to the Haldane Principle. But one of the criticisms is that it withheld the rationale for some of its allocations to the Research Councils, refusing CaSE requests under the Freedom of Information Act and refusing to let the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee to see the allocation letters even in confidence. Will there be a greater culture of transparency with the coalition?

The decisions about to be made in the next few months could radically alter the science and engineering landscape for decades. It’s vital that the sector does all it can now to influence them for the better.

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