Shortly after Chancellor George Osborne released the Autumn Statement and spending plans for the United Kingdom’s government Wednesday afternoon, James Wilsdon, chair of the Campaign for Social Science and professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex, offered the following initial analysis. Additional analysis and comment will appear on Social Science Space today.
The Campaign for Social Science welcomes the relative protection given to the science budget in the spending review, but it’s premature to see this as a good outcome for the long term health of the UK’s research base, until we have the full details on which to base an evidence-informed judgement.
In 2015-2016, the science budget allocation was £4,691m, so a headline commitment to “protecting today’s £4.7 billion science resource funding in real terms”, in an almost zero-inflation environment, means no more than continued flat cash. We also need to understand what is being tucked into that £4.7 billion, and how much will be transferred across from DfID’s aid budget – for example, the £1.5 billion for the Global Challenges Fund – and with what constraints.
Similarly, the Chancellor’s commitment to implement the Nurse Review leaves open lots of questions about how the newly merged body – Research UK – will operate in practice. Will its new cross-disciplinary fund be top-sliced, and how much will this erode existing research council budgets? Will the non-loan elements of Innovate UK’s budget be included? And how will the quality-related elements of the dual support system be protected?
On top of the many questions posed in the HE green paper, and the considerable scope for flexible interpretation of Nurse’s recommendations, we now have an additional review – announced today – of the Research Excellence Framework. Will this be an in-house exercise within BIS, or an open, transparent process, to which the research community can submit evidence? A huge amount is still up in the air, and until all of the pieces land, and can be properly assembled, we won’t really know where we stand.
Today’s announcements also do little to reverse the broader trend of declining public investment in the generation of new knowledge. By 2020 the proportion of GDP being dedicated to publicly supported research and development will fall even further below its level in 2010 and may put greater distance between the UK and comparable countries.
Social science research may also be a casualty of the cuts in Whitehall spending. Analytical staff and research commissioned by departments and agencies are bound to feel the effects of the substantial reductions in ‘administration’ announced by the Treasury. While the relative increase in the budget for the Office of National Statistics is welcome, the National Statistician John Pullinger and colleagues need adequate resources to prepare for the decennial census due in 2021.
It is vital that social science perspectives, alongside those from the natural sciences, engineering, arts and humanities, play an active role in informing debates about the future shape and remit of the research councils, the REF and the new ministerial science committee.