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Commons S&T Committee backs science ahead of Spending Review

09 Nov 2015

An overview of the Commons S&T Committee’s Science Budget report, out today.

News this morning of four Government department’s settling their lot with the Treasury marks the beginning of the end of months of evidence gathering, advocacy, guess-work, negotiation and trade-offs as the Spending Review unfolds.

Today brings the publication of the first report from the new Commons Science and Technology Select Committee on the Science Budget. The Observer picked up on the report with the headline ‘Science budget cuts would be a disaster, MPs to tell George Osborne‘. With the Times choosing the headlines of ‘False Economy‘ and ‘Lower science spending ‘threatens nation’s future‘.

At this crucial point in the Spending Review, the Science and Technology Committee, through undertaking this inquiry, has provided another opportunity for the science community and MPs to get on record their calls and evidence for Government to back science in the Spending Review.

So what are the committee’s calls?

A long term roadmap for increasing public and private R&D investment in the UK to 3% of GDP.

The usual split of public and private investment when looking at the UK and internationally is around 1/3 public and 2/3 private. On that basis this would mean getting UK public investment up to around 1% of GDP. It’s currently languishing at half a percent. Properly enacting this recommendation would be transformational for UK science. Which, if all the robust evidence is to be believed, would in turn be transformational for the UK economy and society – with knock on benefits around the globe.

Review existing capital allocation to ensure sufficient resource is in place to fully ‘sweat our assets’ and integrate future capital and resource allocation to realise full value of capital investment

Now I must admit that ‘sweat our assets’ is not a phrase I’ve written (or indeed used) before – but it seems to have captured the Committee’s attention. And their point is well made. As Professor Graeme Reid stated in our evidence session;

“There is a lot of discussion about efficiency in public spending circles. The first observation I would offer is that efficiency savings are sometimes used as a euphemism for cuts; in other words, you can only improve efficiency if you reduce the budget. In science that is demonstrably not always the case.

If the highest level of efficiency is the goal, it is a pretty good goal for public spending, and we need to recognise that sometimes efficiency is driven up if you increase the budget rather than reduce it. For example, in your own constituency, Chair, on the Harwell campus you have very expensive pieces of scientific equipment, such as the ISIS neutron source and the Diamond synchrotron, which will not be utilised fully if there is insufficient recurrent expenditure to pay for their operation. If you want to drive up efficiency, in that case you need to spend more money rather than less.”

The issue is exasperated by a growing trend of announcement-friendly capital allocations – which in fairness to the last Government was the means of wiping out the feared 40% cut to capital funding announced in 2010. But it would be economic and scientific folly to adopt it as modus operandi going forward. As the Government’s Science and Innovation strategy states,

“Capital investment alone is not sufficient to ensure our research infrastructure is able to continue to deliver world class outputs. We recognise that our science base requires adequate resource funding, and will give full consideration to these requirements when we take a decision at the Spending Review next year.”

I hope their full consideration leads to a good outcome on the 25th November.

Other recommendations that echo what we’ve heard from members include:

  • Calling on the government to restate (and uphold) commitment to the dual support system and the Haldane Principle in the Spending review.
  • Prioritising ensuring that all existing Catapults have the necessary funding and business strategies in order to operate a peak capacity, ahead of expanding the network further. The report also calls for a ringfence around innovate UK’s budget, retaining their innovation grants – rather than switching to loans as has been widely reported is being considered.
  • Keeping a closer eye on R&D investment across Government departments – which they propose to achieve through an annual report to Parliament.

In publishing the report, the Committee has fired a starting gun for when the Government must formally respond to the report’s recommendations. I very much hope that the Government will be able to enthusiastically respond to the Committee, underlining how their Spending Review commitments meet each of the recommendations. But, of course, I cannot prejudge the outcome of the Spending Review.