science funding

Science funding is on the verge of getting a right good hammering in the US.

From afar it looks like the policy equivalent of the storms and twisters that each year cut a swathe along tornado alley running through the Mid-West. If you were watching on weather radar, this frightening picture would look like a large and very angry red blob moving across the screen in your direction.

In a sentence, the Budget Bill going through Congress would cut about £2 billion off federal funding of science as far as I can understand. But the impact is already being felt in universities, labs and patient groups up and down the land as organisations dial-down what they do in anticipation of a harsher future. The whole spending cuts process even has a name – ‘sequestration’ – which makes it sound like the Spanish Inquisition.

Take cover would be the best response of those on the end of this you might think. But, thankfully, Americans are not taking cover. In fact many are showing their passionate opposition to this, both visually and vocally. Just this week ResearchAmerica – one of the key lobby organisation – organised and lead a rally on Congress.

All this will sound familiar to the many of you who were involved with the Science is Vital campaign in the run-up to the last UK Government Spending Review in 2010. And I see the campaign has now revived itself to mobilise action ahead of the deadline for our next spending review which is 26th June.

Science is Vital Mk II seems a rather curious beast if I may so. In fact I sense the deadening of a few too many ‘ologies.’ The campaign call for UK Government funding to be increased to 0.8% GDP to match our international competitors is very specific and all the more odd because of it. Why? Because I can’t remember many successful campaigns with a decimal point in its slogan.

The concern with international competitiveness is absolutely right but can become a dangerous obsession. I recall that in 2010 President Obama was lauded here and elsewhere for his short-term stimulus package for science. I also remember one of our Research Council heads telling me at the time how dangerous it was. He, like many others, could see that after this seduction would come rejection for a great number of US scientists and their work. That looks ever more likely.

Solidity and sustainability were the watchwords following the 2010 spending review and they are worth heralding again.

We must also recognise the very fragile society around us. A few mornings ago I woke up to a strange juxtaposition of stories on the Today Programme. The first was about the argument over whether it is possible to live on £53 a week. The other was a celebration of the tens of millions extra being spent on the Hadron Collider.

Now I totally get the importance of building a pretzel shaped tunnel beneath Switzerland and during light around it to find participles. But I also understand how this might sound to the person scraping pennies together to find a few scraps to eat. And to their MP for that matter.

This is not a time to allow such things to emerge like high altars or catholic symbols of our firmly held beliefs in what science might do. Rather it’s a moment to get real in every sense of that word and, in particular, how this endeavour is utterly democratic in how it benefits society.

On his deathbed in November 1986 Harold Macmillan remarked ruefully on the fact that unemployment was 28% in his old parliamentary seat of Stockton-on-Tees and 29% sixty-three years before, when he was its MP. ‘It’s a rather sad end to one’s life,’ he said.

There seems to be a similar bleakness to the tone and style of some of the commentary about the current state of play in UK science. Forget the euphoria of the spending review settlement last year. Forget also the unseasonably mild autumn we are having with its key indicators of UK leadership in science as published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (see here for a good overview). A hoare frost of higher than expected inflation has set in making it sometimes feel painful to breathe.

With that in mind, I think this month could be a more important one than any other we have seen in the Coalition Government’s approach to science, certainly with regard to the life sciences anyway.

The question that remains unanswered from the spending review is how Ministers now intend to set things up for growth, our life sciences sector being no exception. Indeed, one of the consistent criticisms from the community has been the lack of a long-term plan equivalent to the 10-year framework that existed under a Labour Government.  Some of the initiatives that we have seen so far such as the NIHR translational partnerships are wonderful but they feel tactical and rather strategic without a narrative of how they all fit with the other bits.

This month’s anticipated unveiling of a ‘life sciences’ package by the Government and of other ‘growth’ measures in the autumn statement on 29th November make one hopeful that we may see an answer to the ‘growth’ question. That the Cabinet Office is supposedly showing a keen interest and involvement in putting these together is a promising sign that the message conveyed  ayear ago that No 10 and HM Treasury not only gets the economic and social return argument about research but is willing to follow-through on it. 

Nonetheless I’m still going to invest in some winter mufflers just in case.

UPDATE: You can find the Growth Review document published jointly by HM Treasury and the Department for Businesss here.  A quick skim through its pages suggests a collection of ‘already known’ initiatives with a short section at the back announcing a sector-by-sector consultation on barriers to growth.  From what is in the document, it is not clear how this consultation or discussion is going to be co-ordinated as yet. 

Earlier today I said…

If you have been reading the newspapers today you’ll know that the on/off again growth white paper is now going to emerge this afternoon as a discussion paper.

Seems likely – given what Willetts and others have been saying over the last six months – that there will be a section on life sciences although I might be wrong.  Judging by the press reports the Government is going to ask different sectors to design a blueprint for driving growth in their area.  In terms of the life sciences I would have thought that this is a given-job for the Office for Life Sciences which er …..produced a blueprint about 18 months ago now.  I am not sure what comes after a blueprint.

Will post more about the impending Picassoesque blueprint era of economic planning by the Coalition Government as we know it.

A change is as good as a rest they say.  So I am delighted that our former Chair (as well as former Director of the Wellcome Trust), Dame Bridget Ogilvie, took up my invitation to give us her perspective on the spending review and its implications.  Its closing sentiments about the development of young scientists will strike  a chord with many I feel…..

Dame Bridget Ogilvie

At last we know the worst now that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has spoken. It’s great news that he thinks that investment in scientific research is necessary for the future growth of the economy. So the good news is that the science budget will remain at its current level of £4.6b per annum over the next 4 years, although the research councils and universities will be required to deliver efficiencies worth £162 million a year by 2014-15. 

In addition, the Government has confirmed that they will give £220m in capital funding from the Department of Health budget to UKCMRI, the consortium which includes the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and UCL.  Also, the Government will maintain its commitment to fund developments at the MRC’s LMB, Pirbright and Diamond facilities.In the nation’s present financial predicament, all this is wonderful news and far better than most of us had anticipated.

But….as the cost of scientific research always outruns the general level of inflation, over this time period the value of these funds for science will fall.  We must also remember the wider context of overall funding for universities falling from £7.1 billion to £4.2 billion.  Although this settlement excludes research funding, its ultimate impact remains to be seen.  However, I am sadly sure this will affect the research productivity of universities.

We know too that many research funding charities have already seen a reduction in their ability to fund.  When money for research was reduced in the 1980’s and 90’s, the Wellcome Trust’s funds were increasing exponentially which ensured that the UK remained a real force for medical research internationally.   What Wednesday’s announcement means for charities and other funders we don’t know yet, but many anticipate that it will increase the number of applications for a grant that they receive. So even with this relatively good news, the competition for funds, already severe, will get worse.

What to do?

We know that failure to support the young when times are hard has bad long term consequences. We are still feeling the effect of poor levels of research funding in the 1990’s because the age cohort beneath the present leaders is below strength which is a real worry. We also know there is an increasing tendency to give very large grants to existing leaders with consequent reduction in funds for the less established, and nowadays scientists often don’t get their independence before they are 40+.  My generation became independent 10 or more years earlier.Many excellent people leave a research career when they feel they are unlikely to become independent until after the age of 40. 

Funders rarely pay attention to the way scientific leaders lead and manage their group. There is evidence that once groups exceed 10-12 in number, productivity drops.  Therefore, leaders and funders need to address this issue not only by making sure that developing scientists get a fair share of available resources.  But also that they are properly managed and not unfairly used by their seniors to the advantage of the leaders but the disadvantage of the whole scientific community.

An extract from today’s speech by the Science Minister, David Willetts, at the HEFCE conference in London.  Medical research charities will be pleased with the recognition of their role in delivering research that he mentions several times:

The other main news from the Chancellor yesterday concerned funding for science and research. It is good news for HEFCE’s QR funding and Higher Education Innovation Fund, and good news for the Research Councils and National Academies.

It is proof that this Government recognises the fundamental role of science and research in rebalancing the economy and restoring economic growth. Despite enormous pressure on public spending, the overall level of funding for science and research programmes has been protected in cash terms. And as we implement the efficiency savings identified by Bill Wakeham, we should be able to offset the effects of inflation – thus maintaining research funding in real terms.

There has also been a great deal of pressure to maintain flexibility in government spending. A stable investment climate for science and research – as we all know – allows universities and research institutes to plan strategically, and gives businesses, public services and charities the confidence to invest in the research base. I am delighted to confirm, therefore, that the ring-fence for science and research programmes has therefore been maintained.

Across the country, we have excellent departments with the critical mass to compete globally and the expertise to work closely with business, charities and public services. This £4.6 billion settlement for science and research should mean that we can continue to support them.

So understandably the debate goes on whether we should be drinking champagne or lucozade this morning after yesterday’s announcement.  But I rather liked this sobre assessment by Jenny Rohn, originator of the Science is Vital campaign which has appeared in The Guardian.

The New Scientist has also published a detailed analysis penned by Imran Khan from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE).

But Jenny Rohn’s piece in particular struck a chord with me. It reminded me of something someone once taught me as a young campaigner: that you should never underestimate the importance of the moment when those you are trying to influence begin to share the same language as you.

In the meantime I’m going to have a nice cup of tea as I recover from some sort of CSR inspired bug.