The United Kingdom will soon be the proud owner of a £200-million (US$336-million) polar research vessel, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced today. Bigger and with greater icebreaking and endurance capabilities than the United Kingdom’s existing polar ships, the vessel is designed to open up new research locations, as well as reinforce UK presence in Antarctica and the South Atlantic.
So far unnamed (but red and shiny if the artist’s impressions are anything to go by) the ship is scheduled to begin its first science mission in 2019. It may have to be impressive if it is to fill the shoes of the two existing UK polar vessels, operated by the British Antarctic Survey. The RSS James Clark Ross and RSS Ernest Shackleton, both built in the 1990s, are due to be decommissioned at the end of the decade. A spokeswoman for the Natural Environment Research Council said that their fates have yet to be decided.
Speaking today at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, Osborne also launched a consultation on the United Kingdoms’ long-term plans for science infrastructure spending, intended to shape a road map to be published this autumn.
The consultation will decide how the United Kingdom should spend the £1.1 billion ($1.8 billion) a year (rising in line with inflation) that it has promised to allocate to science capital over the next parliament (2015–16 to 2020–21). The decision, made in last year’s spending review, followed the government’s widely criticized slashing of capital funding from the Research Council budgets in 2010, only to replace it in piecemeal announcements over the course of the current term.
Speaking ahead of the event, Osborne repeated the government’s mantra that the country needs to do more to ensure it converts “great British science into great British business”, making clear that the capital spending plans would be shaped by both UK researchers and businesses.
The government’s £4.6-billion ($7.7-billion) ring-fenced annual budget for research has been frozen since 2010 and will remain so until 2015–16. The Campaign for Science and Engineering says the cumulative erosion due to inflation will amount to more than £1.1 billion by 2015–16. The lobby group also highlights that the United Kingdom spent 1.7% of its national wealth (gross domestic product) on research and development in 2012 — a drop on 2011 and well below the European Union average.
Responding to a tweet from the Chancellor calling for the United Kingdom to turn “scientific ingenuity into commercial success”, David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London replied: “The challenge is with lack of UK industry take up. Where are their development labs and investment in innovation?”