Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Students saved from science cuts?


The ‘Science is Vital’ campaign has successfully saved students from the worst of proposed science cuts. However this victory is not the end of the story and there is still a major risk of a “brain drain” of UK science graduates.

The recent Spending Review has announced that the science budget will be frozen at £4.6bn. This was despite a proposal of a 25% cut for all funding commitments of The UK department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) which supports universities as well as science.

The ring-fenced budget includes £1bn for university research through the Higher Education Innovation Funding Council for England. BIS has announced “the government will ensure the UK remains a world leader in science and research.”

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) launched a sustained lobbying campaign to influence the government’s spending announcements. The ‘Science is Vital’ message was clear: science cuts would create “long term and irreversible damage.”

Committee members including Dr Jenny Rohn from UCL and Imran Khan (CaSE) organised a spectacular rally in central London with over 2,000 marching scientists and the public; a lobby in parliament, and a petition with 35,995 signatories so far.

The key message that science cuts would create “long term and irreversible damage” was echoed by key supporters such as Sir Patrick Moore “If we cut funds for science we’ll be shooting ourselves in the foot.”

However although the worst of the science cuts have been avoided by successful lobbying, the actual money available will result in real term cuts of about 10%. Savings of £324m will still need to be found yet it is argued that there is “no fat to cut.”

CaSE released this response “A 10% cut over four years is significant, especially at a time when our competitors like the US and Germany are having real-terms increases – but today saw an important ‘statement of intent’ from the coalition.”

The UK is currently listed 15th in the world in terms of the proportion of GDP spent on R&D. This relatively low investment contrasts with the fact that the UK is home to 29 of the world’s top 200 Universities, including three of the top ten.

This lack of funding for science results in many science graduates moving abroad in what has been described as a “brain drain”. Yet these talented individuals are vital for the UK to remain a world leader in science and innovation.

This is unlikely to change without an increase in funding for science as opposed to a real term cut. John Krebs, the chair of the House of Lords science and technology committee wrote to the science minister David Willetts to warn against this threat.

The letter said that several leading researchers had already lost scientists to overseas universities and warned that a cut in funding, while other countries increased their scientific spend, would raise "significant risks" to the UK's scientific research base.