After an announcement by Lord Mandelson, science funding is set to become a political debate in the run up to the election. According to the FT, Mandelson said:
“There are no plans to cut science spending. We have made a colossal investment in science and we are not looking to reverse that. It may not grow at the same rate in the future as it has in the past because we have a tighter public spending round … but it is essential.”
This is a huge announcement as it is the strongest commitment by any party about science funding to date. The Conservatives have not yet committed to the level of science funding going forward, but Adam Afriyie has indicated that maintaining the current level of funding would, probably, be the best outcome achievable given the current level of the public deficit. The Dyson report recommended that a Conservative government should maintain science funding. The Liberal Democrats have said that no area of public spending, including science, will be protected once cutting the deficit comes into effect.
Mandelson needs to clarify how this pronouncement squares with the £600 million of savings in the higher education, science and research budgets from 2011 in the Pre-Budget Report. In the spring Budget on the 24th March, the Chancellor should clearly state that investment in science and engineering are areas the Government will continue to invest in by seeing through its commitment in the Science and Innovation Investment Framework that runs to 2014.
The big question about the announcement is what “science spending” will be protected? It probably, refers to the Science Budget, which is mainly administered by the Research Councils. However, government spending out science is much wider than that. A recent interview with the Director General for Science and Research, Professor Adrian Smith, said that effectively the science budget was both funding for Research Councils (the old Science Budget) and research funding allocated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. So it could mean that. It could also include funding for certain areas of education, departmental R&D, the Technology Strategy Board, and the R&D tax credit.
CaSE has produced a working paper on research funding, which looks at all areas of spending on scientific research funding from funding for the research base to R&D tax credits. It is important that the broad portfolio of public expenditure on research and development is considered. It is also important that when politicians make spending commitments – either cuts or investment – that they are clear about what areas of spending are affected.
Mandelson’s announcement shows that after a bit of wavering, that the Government gets the importance of maintaining investment in science through good times and bad. Lord Drayson’s quick reaction to make political waves of it on twitter shows that Labour is out to woo the science vote. According to the Times, the Labour manfiesto is expected to give a firm promise that it will protect investment in science.
CaSE looks forward to hearing further details from all the political parties about their funding commitments. All parties need to be clear about their level of commitment to science funding in advance of the election.