Autumn Statement – Summary for Science

I’ve been in meetings all afternoon so far so I missed the live broadcast of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.

Now that I’ve caught up a little it seems that there’s much to be relieved about. Yet again it seems the Government has deployed the tactic of allowing scare stories of dire cuts to spread in order that the actual announcement  appears much better than people feared, even if it is mediocre.

You can find the overall key results of the spending review and autumn statement here, but along with many colleagues who work in research and higher education I went straight to the outcome for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) which you can find here.

The main results for me – from the narrow perspective of a scientist working in a university –  are:

  1. The overall budget for BIS will be cut by 17% in cash terms between now and 2020.
  2. Most of the above cut will happens from 2018 onwards by, among other things, “asking universities to take more responsibility for student access”.
  3. In more detail (quoted from here) “In this context, the government will reduce the teaching grant by £120 million in cash terms by 2019 to 2020, but allow funding for high cost subjects to be protected in real terms. The government will work with the Director of Fair Access to ensure universities take more responsibility for widening access and social mobility, and ask the Higher Education Funding Council for England to retarget and reduce by up to half the student opportunity fund, focusing funding on institutions with the most effective outcomes. The government will also make savings in other areas of the teaching grant.”
  4. My current employer, the University of Sussex, has done extremely well on widening participation so this is good news locally. Many big universities have achieved nothing in this area so, frankly, deserve this funding to be withdrawn.
  5. It is also to be welcomed that the premium for high cost subjects (i.e. STEM disciplines) is to be protected in real terms, although it still does not affect the actual cost of teaching these subjects.
  6. Contrary to many expectations it seems that HEFCE will not be scrapped immediately. That is significant in itself.
  7. The level of science funding will increase from £4.6 billion to £4.7 billion next year, and will thereafter be protected in real terms over the Parliament.
  8. The real terms protection sounds good but of course we currently have a very low rate of inflation, so this is basically five more years of almost flat cash.
  9. There is supposed to be an additional £500m by 2020 which George Osborne didn’t mention in his speech. I don’t know whether this is extra money or just the cash increase estimated by inflation-proofing the £4.7bn.
  10. The above two points sound like good news….
  11. …but the total budget  will include a £1.5 billion new “Global Challenges Fund” which will build up over this period. This suggests that there may be a significant transfer of funds into this from existing programmes. There could be big losers in this process, as it amounts to a sizeable fraction of the total research expenditure.
  12. In any event the fraction of GDP the UK spends on science is not going to increase, leaving us well behind our main economic competitors.
  13. The Government is committed to implementing the Nurse Review, which will give it more direct leverage to reprioritise science spending.
  14. It isn’t clear to me how  “pure” science research will fare as a result of all this. We will have to wait and see….

The Autumn Statement includes only a very high level summary of allocations so we don’t know anything much about how these decisions will filter down to specific programmes at this stage. The Devil is indeed in the Detail. Having said that, the overall settlement for HE and Research looks much better than many of us had feared so I’d give it a cautious welcome. For now.

If anyone has spotted anything I’ve missed or wishes to comment in any other way please use the box below!

 

2 Responses to “Autumn Statement – Summary for Science”

  1. thanks – that saved me having to wade through the details…

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    A few points.

    A cut in the English higher education budget without a corresponding increase in fees will put pressure on some weaker institutions. A few universities have already been in a financially precarious position. We shall see how things develop. However, the most vulnerable institutions are mostly those that take large numbers of students from non-traditional backgrounds, and hence may win if more funding goes to those with the best records at widening participation.

    The blue book (HTML and PDF) states that the real terms protection for science is for resource funding, not capital funding (“… protecting today’s £4.7 billion science resource funding in real terms for the rest of the Parliament”, blue book, PDF version, para. 1.185). It’s not exactly clear what will happen to capital funding. A table (blue book, table 1.10, page 49) shows the UK science capital spending is due to increase from £1.1 billion p.a. in 2015-16 to £1.2 billion p.a. in 2020-21. But the rounding errors do not allow a detailed assessment of whether there is adequate protection from inflation, but the sum does increase at least slightly.

    I’m concerned that in recent years the Chancellor has chosen some science projects for funding, which at least in part breaches the Haldane principle. The projects announced today seem to suggest this will continue, and a few science projects are mentioned.

    The new Global Challenges research project to support developing countries will eat into existing funding. £1.5 billion over 5 years is substantial, £300 million per annum on average, though Peter referred to the funding increasing over the 5 years. An increase over time could lead it to c.£400-500 million by 2020-21, which would be a substantial diversion of funding. We could imagine it supporting health care research primarily. I don’t know whether observing facilities in Chile and South Africa could be moved into this spending category.

    The blue book states “The government will also take forward a review of the Research Excellence Framework in order to examine how to simplify and strengthen funding on the basis of excellence, and will set out further details shortly.” So we’ll have to wait to see what happens there.

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