I can only think of turning the last few hours of trying to absorb today’s announcements and figures in the following way:
- Surely even the harshest critic would have to acknowledge that, comparatively speaking, science fared well in today’s spending review. It was certainly spared the savage cuts that we are seeing elsewhere and that were long muted.
- The fact that the basic components of the funding regime remain intact means continuity and stability – qualities often overlooked or indeed deliberately attacked in politics but crucial to productivity.
- The ring-fencing of the science budget, not just because of the protection that it affords, but because it helps to ensure transparency and scrutiny of the science budget.
- The fact that the government has listened and an important argument about the role of science in the economy and society was won with HM Treasury – it by no means seemed that way just a few weeks ago.
- The commitment to the Medical Research Council (MRC) and maintaining its budget ‘in real terms’ and also to big ticket items like UKCMRI.
- The strong narrative in support of clinical research generally.
- The coalescence of many voices in science behind a common aim…as necessary in good times as well as bad
The not so good
- A 10 % cut in real terms will still be painful. Even with the sort of efficiency measures recommended by the Wakeham report some surgery is going to be required somewhere.
- What this means in terms of our international competitivenes.
..but, as said, it could have been far worse.
- The first is the pernennial worry for charities about the settlement for the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) under the QR settlement which has yet to be hammered out. It is a key lever for our involvement and underpins our partnership with universities. So, plenty of negotiations to be had yet.
- The second is that charities will undoubtedly come under pressure to fund more research at a time of less resource. Competition will be fierce. This will come with its own associated stresses as we tried to point out in our letter to The Times last week.
- With less news forthcoming about other research councils some have already intimated the need to ensure what happens here does not undermine interdisciplinary research and partnership.
- ….and the great unknown is the extent to which the Browne report recommendations re: tuition and teaching will have a knock-on impact on science and future generations of scientists.
What happens next?
I think the coalesced lobby needs to push on now. The near-term objective must be to make sure the forthcoming growth white paper translates today’s statement of intent by the Coalition Government into a cohesive plan.
In flying one is taught how to use the circle of uncertainty principle when lost: find a fixed landmark and circle until one can identify where one is by reference to your map.
The run-up to today has felt a little like that. We have had a fixed landmark in the CSR. Now, at least, we know how much fuel we have on board (even if it is not as much as we would like). And it looks likely there is a place to land. Doing so safely and in one piece is the next and perhaps hardest part to deliver.