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UK budget sees boosts for data science, graphene and cell therapy

British scientists already know that their public funding for the next two years is frozen at £4.6 billion (US$7.6 billion) annually (as it has been since 2010, which for the nation’s seven research-grants agencies has meant a 10% cut in real terms over the past three years), so they did not expect anything transformative from today’s budget.

Right on cue, UK chancellor George Osborne continued his trend of throwing small crumbs of funding to science and technology — £222 million additional cash over the next five years — while at the same time failing to announce either long-term support for basic science or a strategy to develop UK industrial research, both of which are sorely needed, say science-policy experts.

The budget “follows the usual pattern,” tweeted Kieron Flanagan, who studies science policy at Manchester Business School, “a few small science and technology announcements given the name ‘institute’ or ‘centre’ to make them seem significant.”

“More than individual funding for ‘announceable’ projects we need a long-term funding pipeline and a strategy for investment in research to instil confidence in the security of our research ecosystem,” added Lesley Yellowlees, the president of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Osborne said the government would provide £42 million over the next five years for a national institute, named after British computer scientist Alan Turing, which would study ‘big data’.  He also announced £55 million over five years for a centre aimed at large-scale manufacturing of cell therapies for late-stage clinical trials, and £19 million to provide small companies with access to equipment for research and development of products based on graphene, the material for which UK-based researchers Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics. (The institutes are ‘Catapult’ centres, which are loosely modelled on Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes and have the aim of stimulating links between universities and businesses.)

“We should break the habit of a lifetime and commercially develop [graphene] in Britain,” Osborne added. The United Kingdom and Europe have far fewer patents on the material than Asia and the United States, although a 10-year, €1-billion European push to commercialize graphene is bidding to change that, and the United Kingdom has already plunged £38 million into a National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester.

These three fields — big data, regenerative medicine and graphene — are all areas that Osborne and science minister David Willetts have picked out repeatedly in speeches over the past 18 months as technologies in which the United Kingdom can be world leading.

Osborne also announced an extra £106 million for around 20 additional doctoral training centres — university-based hubs in which PhD students are taught in cohorts and given extra courses in networking, business and industrial development. In the United Kingdom, these centres are rapidly eclipsing conventional project grant PhDs, where students train under the wing of one academic research group.

In the big picture, UK spending on research and development as a proportion of its economy is around 1.7%, well below the European average, although the country punches far above its weight  in terms of top-cited research papers.

“The last four years of a flat cash science budget is biting scientists and engineers and squeezing universities,” said Sarah Main, the director of the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering. By its calculations, the total research budget — including not just research grants, but also a boost to spending on buildings and facilities — will rise from £5.4 billion in 2010 to £5.9 billion in 2015. (In 2010, the government slashed spending on buildings and facilities, the ‘capital’ part of the science budget, by 40%, a reduction which it has subsequently redressed.)

The government is expected to announce a more comprehensive science and innovation strategy in the autumn — though this might be short-lived, as national elections are set for 2015.


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