Spending Review: Research Ringfence Holds, But Doesn’t Expand

George Osborne
George Osborne (Photo: altogetherfool/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

While the so-called ‘U-turn’ on tax credits dominated initial receptions to the comprehensive spending review unveiled by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne today, members of the science and higher education communities focused more on how ‘ring-fenced’ research funding actually would be through 2020. Would the ‘Science Chancellor’ live up to that sobriquet?

Answering that question, Osborne told Parliament that “in the modern world, one of the best ways you can back business is by backing science. That’s why, in the last Parliament, I protected the resource budget for science in cash terms. In this Parliament I’m protecting it in real terms so it rises to £4.7 billion.” (You can see the breakdown here.)

Philip Nelson, chair of the Research Councils UK Executive Group – which is facing a sea change in its role that’s to the pre-spending review release of a report by Paul Nurse – applauded that promise. “Our world-class research is the engine that drives growth, improves health and increases quality of life in the UK and beyond,” he was quoted in a release. “We welcome the Government’s clear recognition of this in the Comprehensive Spending Review – protecting the value of the research budget and ensuring an absolute cash increase.”

RCUK offered the following analysis (note that it combines capital and resource spending):

The research budget, within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, will increase in line with inflation. This means by the end of the spending review period the combined budget for science capital and resource will reach £6.4 billion and the science resource budget will be over £500 million higher by the end of the decade compared to 2015-16.

In comments for The Conversation, Roger King, visiting professor in the School of Management at the University of Bath, noted the improvements since the last plan came out in 2010 and the savings envisioned in the Nurse Review. “Science spending will continue to be protected – but this time in real, and not simply cash terms, as it was under the coalition. Partly in return, there are likely to be savings made by reorganising the research councils under one body – Research UK – with Osborne indicating he will accept the recommendations made in the recent review by Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society.”

That protection is a matter of perspective, as it does increase absolute spending even as research funding likely will stall relative to expected growth in the British economy – and will likely start to look small compared to spending by other nations.

“As it stands,” Jenny Rohn, chair of Science is Vital, told the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh, “this science budget appears to be smaller than in 2010 thanks to preceding inflation, and will continue to shrink both as a fraction of GDP and per capita.” Or as she told The Guardian: “[O]nce the dust settles and the details emerge, it may turn out that the fence around the science budget is more porous than it was before, and that additions to this budget will dilute its overall value.”

Looking specifically at social science, James Wilsdon, the chair of the Campaign for Social Science and a science policy researcher, made a similar point. “In 2015-2016, the science budget allocation was £4,691 million, 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. … 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.”

Wilsdon identified a particular threat in the spending review’s promise to whittle down “administration,” which he suggested could remove necessary analytical and research staff necessary to feeding data to evidence-producing social scientists. “Social science research,” he said bluntly, “may also be a casualty of the cuts in Whitehall spending.”

The Campaign had been active while the spending review was gestating in stating its concerns and suggestions for enhancement. “The voices of social scientists are often narrowly heard,” Wilsdon said in February, “and it is the campaign’s mission to ensure that we speak up for the social sciences.” His comments came as the Campaign released The Business of People: The Significance of Social Science over the Next Decade, which aimed both to influence the general election in May and this month’s spending review.

David Walker, the head of policy for the Academy of Social Sciences (which founded the Campaign), suggested (again, at The Guardian) that greater volume in that speaking up may indeed be necessarily:

Ahead, for social science, lies the major challenge of getting its voice heard as the research councils are restructured (phased out?) and replaced by the new superstructure of Research UK, proposed in the Nurse Review. Their vocal chords are going to have to be exercised even more if Research UK takes over grants to universities from Hefce – both within individual universities and, critically, to ensure the criteria for distributing grants recognise how social science is done, its impact and the fallibility of simply counting articles published in peer-reviewed journals with bibliometrics

Echoing Roger King’s takeaway message that “higher education does not appear to have been badly treated in the spending review,” Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, offered a one-word echo: “Phew!” even as he too suggested the devil as always will reside in the details.

“The spending review could have been worse for universities and students than it has turned out to be. The improvements to postgraduate loans, the new support for part-time students and the protection of research spending are all welcome and better than many people feared. … ‘The chancellor has worked hard to build a reputation as the first chancellor for science, so it is good he did not put that at risk today by slashing spending on students or research.”

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