The impact of spending cuts on science and scientific research - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Conclusions and recommendations


Introduction

1.  The announcement of a £600 million cut across higher education and science budgets was most unwelcome. Not only does it appear to be an entirely arbitrary figure imposed by Treasury diktat, but it undermines the Government's previously good record on valuing science and higher education. (Paragraph 5)

Funding science in the UK

2.  These issues—the ring fence, tracking spend on science, etc.—are extremely important and we regret that we have not had time to devote a full and detailed inquiry to them. Our successor committee may—especially in the context of a new Parliament—consider exploring the full breadth of science funding in detail. (Paragraph 8)

The Government's ambition and international comparators

3.  Although gross expenditure on research and development has increased since 2004, the Government is some way off its target of 2.5% of GDP being spent on R&D by 2014. Indeed, the annual rate of change would have to double between 2009 and 2014 compared to 2004 and 2008 if the target were to be met. Such a doubling could only be met if public sector investment were to increase dramatically. Any cuts to the rate of increase, with the attendant decline in private sector investment, would be seriously damaging. (Paragraph 21)

The Research Excellence Framework

4.  We commend the lengths to which HEFCE has gone in order to consult and seek to meet the concerns of the academic community with regard to the inclusion of a retrospective assessment of impact within the Research Excellence Framework. We fear that their efforts may be in vain. It is our view that however meritorious the idea of awarding funding on the basis of past impact may or may not be, the difficulties associated with capturing past impacts effectively and allocating funds fairly on the basis of them will be insurmountable. (Paragraph 31)

Pathways to impact

5.  If the Research Councils were not encouraging researchers to think about potential impact then it would be necessary for a select committee to recommend that they did. However, misconceptions persist about the role of impact in grant applications and it seems that many assessors and those being assessed think that they are being asked to 'predict' impacts, when in fact the purpose is to stimulate thought about how impact might be developed. It is up to the Research Councils to improve the guidance they provide, and we urge them to act to clear up the misunderstanding. We do not believe that the consideration of pathways to potential impacts should be used as a tie-breaker in grant applications. (Paragraph 36)

6.  Given that the very best literature on the subject concludes that reliable quantification of the economic impact of investment in science and research is deeply problematic at best, the suggestion that the Treasury is waiting for 'hard figures' on the benefits of research causes us great concern. (Paragraph 37)

7.  If funding does not increase, UK-based researchers and institutions may find it harder to participate in projects requiring collaboration and the sharing of international facilities, if commitments to medium and long-term funding cannot be made. If there is even a perception that British science is suffering as a result of cuts, the UK will become a less attractive place for academics to work. A similar consequence could very well be that science will be seen once again as a less attractive destination for students contemplating higher education. With all the work that has gone into increasing the demand for science places within HE, it would be an enormous waste of past effort and future potential were cuts to be visited upon the sector. (Paragraph 39)

Picking winners and losers?

8.  Maintaining a broad portfolio of excellent research need not be mutually exclusive with the Government identifying and seeking to capitalise upon areas in which the UK has the potential for world-leading science, provided that it is done in a transparent and accountable way. Where such areas are identified at a national level, they should be funded at a national level. We note the importance of the work of the Technology Strategy Board in this respect. (Paragraph 43)

The Science and Technology Facilities Council

9.  We remain to be convinced that 'indicative planning' over future CSR periods for the use of large facilities will be meaningful if the standard principle of planning on the basis of 'flat cash' allocations continues. (Paragraph 50)

10.  The structure of the STFC as established in 2007 left much to be desired. We are concerned that the proposals are extremely provisional, depending as they do upon further consultation between BIS, the Bank of England and HM Treasury and the outcome of the next CSR period. (Paragraph 51)

11.  We are not satisfied with the outcome of the STFC's reprioritisation exercise, and consider that any withdrawals from programmes should be suspended at least until such time as the next CSR allocations are known. Otherwise, the budgetary fall-out from the unsatisfactory merger of CCLRC and PPARC will be set in stone. (Paragraph 52)

Increasing demand for and supply of STEM students

12.  Whilst it would be unrealistic to expect every PhD student to become a Professor, we are concerned that academia is losing some of its brightest and best to alternative careers. The life of a young research scientist needs making more attractive when compared to the bright lights of industry and commerce. (Paragraph 59)

Funding science within higher education

13.  The allocation of teaching funding by HEFCE for STEM subjects should adequately reflect the higher costs of teaching science, so that departments do not require cross subsidisation within universities. In order to deliver the number of science graduates that the UK needs, the Government should in its letter to HEFCE, require that universities deliver the necessary numbers of STEM graduates. (Paragraph 61)

14.  HEFCE's decision to cut capital grants will disproportionately affect science teaching in universities. We were frustrated by the fact that, when asked about the future, the Minister for Higher Education gave us answers about the past. Decisions about 'different missions' are forced upon universities when the Government, through HEFCE, fails to invest adequately in higher education. If the Government is committed to increasing the number of STEM graduates, it can little afford the closure of science departments within universities. (Paragraph 63)

15.  We put our concerns over unfunded and unsustainable growth in the number of science places to the Minister, who told us that "there has always been unfunded growth in and around the system". As an observation, that is undoubtedly the case, but for the Government actively to encourage unfunded and unsustainable growth in a period immediately before cuts in investment as a matter of policy is something entirely different. Sir Alan Langlands's description of the move as "fairly hastily contrived" was, in our view, accurate. (Paragraph 67)

16.  We are in principle in favour of the concentration of research on the basis of excellence, provided that it is concentrated wherever excellence is found. (Paragraph 68)

17.  We urge the Department to press the Treasury to make it easier and more financially viable for universities to collaborate and cut costs where they can. (Paragraph 71)

Conclusion

18.  At a time when, according to the Government's previous arguments, public investment in science should be increasing, the prospect of cuts looms large over the UK's science base. The Government is committed to supporting business investment in research and development through the taxation system, but the very existence of such businesses depends upon the size and strength of the science base underpinning them. If the Government fails to properly support the science base, there will be no companies to give tax breaks to. (Paragraph 72)

19.  Failure to continue to increase investment in science would be both counterintuitive and counterproductive. Much good progress will be lost and the size of cuts to science are unlikely to make a significant dent in the deficit. We cannot at present reconcile the Government's policy ambitions with its actions, and call upon the Government to increase spending on science within the next Budget, if it truly is committed to the principle of a knowledge-based economy. (Paragraph 73)



 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2010
Prepared 23 March 2010