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UK announces £600 million for science – almost redeeming past cuts

UK scientists’ frowns are turning to relieved smiles. Britain’s government seems to have decided that it made a mistake in slashing spending for research infrastructure – as it planned in a four-year-budget set in 2010. Slowly but surely over the past two years, the government has been re-injecting the lost cash; last month UK chancellor George Osborne made an encouraging speech about boosting science budgets and supporting applied research.

Today he announced in his annual Autumn Statement, his single biggest science investment yet: £600 million (US$967 million), which will partly go to infrastructure funds (the ‘capital’ budget) for the nation’s research councils (which dole out grants for scientists), and partly to facilities for applied research and development (Budget statement pdf, paragraph 1.92). The fine details of where the money will go are not yet announced, but it will support some of the key areas, such as synthetic biology, advanced materials, big data, energy storage, and regenerative medicine, that Osborne pinpointed in November in his speech on the UK’s science priorities at London’s Royal Society.

But this cash boost doesn’t take away from the fact that the UK’s total nominal science budget still falls over 2011-2015, as the UK has not quite made up for funds lost in the 2010-11 spending review. Adding up both grant money and capital funds (money for infrastructure such as radio telescopes and Antarctic research stations), this review set the 2010-11 total annual research budget at £5.7 billion, but froze grant budgets and cut infrastructure spending by 44% in successive years out to 2014-15.

Since then, the government has made a series of announcements putting around £1.1 billion back into science spending over several years, according to an analysis by the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering (CASE), together with another £200 million to support commercially-focused R&D. (The treasury’s budget statement today adds up the numbers slightly differently, saying that £925 million has been put back into science).  Despite this, cumulative cuts to the science budget from 2010-11 out to 2014-15 still sum to a hefty decrease of £875 million, CASE said.

That was before today’s £600 million, which will be split between basic research and commercial funds, so how it affects this shortfall remains to be seen. Update: The government’s business, innovation and skills department says that the total science budget (grants + capital) in the years from 2011-12 to 2014-15, remains about £195 million short of a ‘flat cash’ settlement compared to 2010-11. [When inflation is taken into account a flat cash settlement is likely to mean a decrease approaching 10% in real terms].

Nevertheless, says CASE’s director Imran Khan, “We were hoping that the Chancellor would continue his trend of supporting science and engineering, and are really delighted with this new commitment – the total amount of new funding since 2010 has now reached over £1.5 billion … we applaud the Chancellor for supporting not only fundamental research, but also making science a bigger part of the UK’s industrial strategy”.

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