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UK government’s overspending could hit science budget

Posted on behalf of Elizabeth Gibney.

Leaked documents suggest that the UK research budget may be cut by 2%, or around £200 million, over two years.

The revelations came in an internal memo from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that lays out a package of measures ministers are said to be discussing to balance the department’s budget.

The document — a brief for a meeting between universities and science minister David Willetts and business secretary Vince Cable — outlines how £100 million of the total science ‘ring fence’  for each year could be spent on items that were previously budgeted elsewhere — effectively cutting the money available for research.

Knock-on cuts within the science budget could be manifested in the loss of 700 PhD studentships and close to 2,000 full-time academic positions, or alternatively in the “closure of a large UK-based facility”, the Guardian reported on 22 November.

The science ring fence, which includes funding for the UK Research Councils — the seven main research funding agencies — and core research funding allocated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has been frozen at £4.6 billion since 2010, without keeping up with inflation.

The newspaper also reports that higher education could be hit more widely as part of the range of cuts aimed at filling a reported £1.4-billion hole in the BIS budget. The Guardian‘s report says the shortfall came from a failure to police and apply controls on the number of students admitted to the country’s universities.

A BIS spokesperson said the department would not comment on leaks, adding: “Work continues to resolve the difficult but important challenge of balancing the departmental books while not damaging growth. A range of proposals are being considered but final decisions have not been made.”

Sarah Main, who heads the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a non-profit organization, says the options presented in the memo illustrate the seriousness of on-going negotiations in BIS to make savings.

“Negotiations will continue, and the details are likely to be different when the allocation is officially announced at the end of this year. But the scenarios presented in this document show that the outcomes could be pretty severe,” says Main.

She also noted the struggle UK scientist and universities have faced under the flat-cash budget since 2010. “Instead of a continued and ever-tighter squeeze, we want to see a long-term plan for government investment in science that will enable us to be a world-leading scientific nation for generations to come,” she adds.

Frances Saunders, president of the Institute of Physics, says, “We don’t comment on leaks but it’s hard to imagine how a government that has been so supportive of science could be considering this option.”

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