UK science needs more bread-and-butter investment – The Guardian (blog)

the 2013
Spending Round
the chancellor announced a return of funding for science capital to
£1.1bn in 2015-16 and promised to protect this investment in
real terms. The Royal Society of Chemistry, together with many in the
scientific community, broadly welcomed this move – along with the
government’s plan to develop a long-term strategy for scientific
infrastructure in the form of a Science Capital Roadmap. These are
steps in the right direction towards strengthening the UK’s science
base, but
a question mark remains over how the government should divvy out
their pot of science

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has proposed three
for the allocation of science capital funding. Two out
of these three could have a significantly negative impact on the
breadth and impact of UK science and research. Our
favoured scenario
maintains the roles of the research councils and higher education
funding bodies as holders of fairly big purse strings roughly
equivalent to the 2010 budget (plus inflation). This has
the potential to reinvigorate institutional research by allowing
much-needed upgrading and maintenance of current equipment and making
the most of investments we’ve already made. It would also ensure
that new excellent science is funded through a process of peer

government announcements about capital spending, however, have
typically been for large-scale “announceable” facilities such as,
for example, the Alan
Turing Institute
. BIS’s third scenario lends itself to the
danger of capital funding being saved for these largescale projects,
rather than being openly available for researchers to apply for.
Although these large facilities are important, there is a real need
for “bread and butter” investment in scientific infrastructure –
not only to maintain and upgrade equipment in institutions, but also
to purchase new equipment for projects funded by the research councils.

this year’s budget,
George Osborne highlighted his desire for the UK to “out-compete,
out-smart and out-do the rest of the world”. Achieving
the chancellor’s vision to secure the UK’s future as a
knowledge-led economy relies on the provision of instrumentation for
research at all levels. This will create a
strong knowledge base at universities that will support early-career
researchers who may be future
leaders in their field, attract leading academics and industry
collaborators, and feed expertise
and findings into large-scale facilities. Critically, investing in a
network of local, regional and national facilities could have as much
impact as investment in one facility. Without this base, we risk
generating a top-heavy and unstable structure that won’t keep up
with international competition.

also important that funding for scientific infrastructure isn’t
limited to specific technology areas, but provides support for
excellence across the breadth of UK research. The government’s Eight
Great Technologies
have created useful focal points for the UK science and innovation
base in areas of particular strategic opportunity. But by limiting
the variety of science performed in the UK, we risk damaging the
wider science
base that enables us to nurture
world-leading fundamental research and address societal and economic
could also limit the UK’s capacity to respond and adapt to
unforeseen challenges and opportunities.

we need to invest in infrastructure to support researchers at all
levels across the breadth of UK research. But what good is all this
equipment if it isn’t used?

decisions on science capital also need to take running costs and
personnel into account. This operational funding will ensure that we
realise the greatest benefit from capital investment. We can see the
consequence of funding shortfalls at one national facility – the
ISIS pulsed
neutron and muon source operated for only 120 days out of an optimal
180 in 2013. As well as reducing research output, decreasing
operational funding can also reduce the time allocated to using
scientific instrumentation. This tends to encourage researchers to
perform “safe” experiments with a better chance of succeeding
that are more likely to obtain results that can be published
in scientific journals. Securing operational funding will lessen time
pressures, allowing researchers to explore more innovative lines of
enquiry that could potentially lead to exciting breakthroughs.

how should the pot look for 2020?

planned Science Capital Roadmap demonstrates that the government
recognises the central role of scientific research in reshaping the
UK into a modern knowledge economy. But the UK is not in the
position to be truly internationally competitive if we do not keep up
with the levels of funding for research and development invested by
our competitors. Over the last three decades, UK government
investment in R&D has declined in real terms while governments in
countries such as China and Germany have spent more. We need to
provide a secure research ecosystem to attract business investment
and top-class researchers – we are in serious danger of falling
behind and losing the jewel in our crown if this trend doesn’t

are calling for a commitment from all sides of the debate to raise UK
public investment in science to the current EU average of 0.7% of GDP
by the end of the next parliament in 2020. We know this is not an
insignificant rise – a 3% year-on-year increase in spending
relative to GDP would take political conviction. But it is not
impossible and would ensure that our world-leading science base can
respond to the numerous societal challenges we face, as well as
continuing to drive economic growth for sustainable prosperity.

Clare Viney is executive director, communications, policy and campaigns, at the Royal Society of Chemistry

Reminder: David Willetts, the UK science minister, will join us for a live Q&A to discuss the BIS capital consultation from 12–2 pm BST on Monday 16 June. The session is open to all and will take place in the comments thread below this launch article. Please create a Guardian
comment account
to join in

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