Spending Review 2010 - HC 618Written evidence submitted by Science is Vital Campaign (SR 27)

Attached please find a memorandum from the Science is Vital Campaign, which is our response to the call by the Science and Technology Committee for evidence of the impact on the science and research budget allocations for 2011–12 to 2014–15.

This submission is made in a personal capacity by the members of the Executive Committee of the Science is Vital Campaign and does not represent the views of their employing organisations.

Summary

1. Science is Vital has sought to encourage ordinary scientists, at all stages of their careers, to respond to the Select Committee’s enquiry on the impacts of the CSR on science spending. Several instances of direct negative effects of the “freeze” on recurrent spending and cuts to the capital budgets are reported below. Crucially, however, it is too early for the full impact of the CSR to be known in proper detail and we believe this evidence gathering exercise should be repeated by the Science and Technology Committee in 12–18 months time.

Background

2. The Science is Vital campaign is a grass-roots organisation of scientists and supporters of science that was launched in September 2010 to counter the threat of deep cuts in Government’s science spending. Science is Vital has now formally constituted itself in order to continue to stimulate scientific interest in the political process and provide an effective conduit of the views of working scientists to policy-makers and parliamentarians.

3. The campaign used its public profile to support the call for evidence by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. Via our website (scienceisvital.org.uk), we encouraged and facilitated submissions to the Committee from working scientists.

4. In addition, we created a web-based form that allowed us to gather additional information. The form was completed in confidence by over forty individuals from institutions and companies from around the UK. This memorandum provides a brief summary of the evidence reported, as well as information gathered from members of the Science is Vital executive who are themselves working scientists (Dr Jennifer Rohn, Professor Stephen Curry, Dr Tom Hartley, Dr Lewis Dartnell, Dr Prateek Buch, Ms Della Thomas).

Detailed Information and Recommendations

5. The submissions to the Science is Vital website were from institutions in England, Scotland and Wales. Most were from universities or research institutes (including some of the most prestigious institutions in the UK); a small number were from teaching hospitals or technology companies.

6. The extent of quantitative detail provided in the submissions was rather variable. This probably reflects the fact that they have been made by people who are not in senior positions with access to primary information on university or company budgets.

7. Twenty of the 44 submissions stated that their institution had already implemented redundancies or a freeze on hiring. Redundancies have taken place among academic and support staff (eg research or workshop technicians).

8. Others noted that the squeeze on spending has led to a reduction in capacity (eg the UK’s state-of-the-art neutron source, ISIS, is now operating at two-thirds of its full operational capacity). Elsewhere ageing equipment is not being serviced or renewed in order to save cash.

9. One submission reported that the National Environmental Research Council’s decision to no longer fund Masters level university courses has created a difficult situation for students of Earth and Environmental Sciences. The situation is exacerbated by the large increases in fees for Masters level courses that are likely to accompany the changes in the funding of undergraduate tuition in 2012 (the reduction in Government funding of Universities through the HEFCE teaching budget).

10. Although it is too early for the effects to have reached most scientists, there is widespread pessimism about the effect of the cash-limited budget on the success rates of grant applications to the Research Councils, which are already extremely low even for high-quality graded applications due to the mismatch between grant applications and funds available. Young scientists in particular are dependent for their job security on the success of grant applications they make or which are made by others on their behalf.

11. Three-quarters of respondents are thinking of leaving the UK or leaving research altogether or know someone who is considering the same.

12. Our survey is not extensive or controlled but it does give an impression that chimes with what we have learned in discussions with our own colleagues. There is widespread pessimism about the direction of science funding in the UK over the next several years. This appears to be due particularly to redundancies among colleagues or the involvement of staff in review exercises designed to assess their performance with a view to implementing job cuts. The squeeze on spending also means that more and more scientists will have to spend a greater portion of their time in applying for a diminishing pot of research funds.

13. The tight budgetary situation in universities caused by the CSR (and the impact of cuts made by the previous administration) is being exacerbated by the continued uncertainty surrounding the implementation of the Government’s reform of the university funding and tuition fee systems. Though still difficult to quantify, this is reported anecdotally as having a negative effect on the recruitment of new staff. In previous years, university departments would have invested in new, young faculty in anticipation that they would be successful at winning grant income but that appears no longer to be true. As a consequence opportunities for the current generation of young scientists are diminished.

14. There is a risk that a science base demoralised by the impact of the spending review will fall behind competitor countries such as Germany, China, South Korea and Japan [Macilwain, C. (2011) Cell, 144, 167–169], who have continued to increase their investment in science. We appreciate that the economic situation remains grim but it will only exacerbate the problem of morale if the Government continues to pretend that a cash-freeze is not in fact a cut in real terms.

15. A clear commitment to restore funding beyond 2014 would provide an encouraging signal. It would also help to repair the damage caused to our international reputation by the spending freeze and the protracted discussion on limiting immigration (although we recognise the worth of the particular provisions that the Government has proposed for PhD-trained scientists).

16. Finally, we would like to suggest that it is too early to properly assess the impact of the CSR on the UK science base because the time for spending decisions to work their way to ground level is likely in many instances to be much longer than six months. For example, the process of submitting, reviewing and deciding on grant proposals can easily take nine months. We would therefore encourage the Science and Technology Committee to re-visit this question in 12–18 months time.

17. The signatories declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Dr Jennifer Rohn(Chair)Professor Stephen Curry(Vice-Chair)Dr Evan Harris(Vice-Chair)Mr Shane McCracken(Treasurer)Dr Richard Grant(Secretary)Ms Della Thomas(Membership)Dr Lewis DartnellDr Prateek BuchDr Tom Hartley

27 April 2011

Prepared 7th November 2011