Archive for the Science Politics Category

Autumn Statement – Summary for Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on November 25, 2015 by telescoper

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 Many big universities have achieved nothing in this area so, frankly, deserve this funding to be withdrawn.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!


Chancellor’s Autumn Statement Poll

Posted in Politics, Science Politics on November 24, 2015 by telescoper

There’s a not inconsiderable amount of anxiety around as tomorrow’s  Autumn Statement approaches. The likelihood is that we will see drastic cuts to everything, including science and education, and huge jobs losses and cuts to public services around the country.

In order to gauge public opinion, ahead of the announcement of the end of British Civil Society I have decided to conduct a poll.

And in case it’s all too depressing to think about, Dorothy has knitted a Soup Dragon to cheer you up.




Posted in Finance, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 22, 2015 by telescoper

The outcome of the 2015 Comprehensive Spending Review is to be announced shortly (on Wednesday 25th November), a fact which suggested this piece of music. It’s a solo piano piece by the late great Mal Waldron. Among many other things, Mal Waldron was Billie Holiday’s regular accompanist from 1957 until her death in 1959 and it was during that time he was booked to appear on a famous all-star TV Jazz broadcast called The Sound of Jazz from which this solo performance is taken. It’s an original composition by the pianist, and it’s called Nervous.

p.s. I did a blog post some time ago about Billie Holliday’s heartbreaking last performance with Lester Young, which also appeared on The Sound of Jazz. You can find it here.

Nurse Review Published

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on November 19, 2015 by telescoper

I’ve been busy all day so unable to join in the deluge of comment and reaction to the Review of the Research Councils carried out by Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, which was published today. I’ve only just had time to skim through it, so I won’t comment in detail, but it does seem to me that the main points are:

  1. The review does not call for a reduction in the current number of seven research councils (STFC, EPSRC, ESRC, AHRC, NERC, BBSRC and MRC); mergers were thought by many to be possible outcomes of this review.
  2. There is a proposal to set up an overarching structure, called Research UK (RUK), which is a beefed-up version of the current RCUK, one of the aims of which would be to provide better coordination between the Research Councils.
  3. It is proposed that RUK should liaise directly with a committee of government ministers who would have significant influence over the way funding was distributed to the Research Councils. It’s not clear to me how this squares with the Haldane Principle.
  4. It is also proposed that RUK might take over the distribution of QR funding (currently done by HEFCE), but that this should be done in such a way as to preserve the idea of “dual funding”.

There are other points of course, but these seemed to me to be the most significant. It remains to see how many of the proposals are implemented and how they will be made to fit into the framework of the Higher Education Green Paper published last week. Of more immediate concern to many researchers will be how much funding there will be to be distributed by any new organization if the Comprehensive Spending Review announced next week results in big cuts to the science budget, as many fear it will.

Comments are welcome through the box!

The Case for Science Spending

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on November 9, 2015 by telescoper

Just a quick post with my Community Service hat on to draw your attention to the fact that the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has issued a report “The Science Budget” (which is available to download as a PDF here). It makes a very strong case for increasing science spending to 3% of GDP, although suggests doing that gradually. I don’t agree with everything in it, actually, butit is good to see (in the 4th paragraph) an explicit acknowledgment of the absurdity of the current situation in which capital is given to build facilities but there is no resource available to run them (“Batteries Not Included”).

This document will hopefully help to persuade government that continued real-terms cuts in science spending make no sense whatsoever.

I’m taking the liberty of quoting the summary in full, but do read the full document. It’s very interesting.


The United Kingdom is a science superpower. In terms of both quality and productivity, our research base `punches above its weight’, setting a worldwide benchmark for excellence.

Government spending on the science base has been protected since 2010, with a flat-cash- ring-fenced budget for annual ‘resource’ spending distributed by the research councils, the Higher Education Funding Council and others. Annual ‘capital’ budgets have varied. The Government has already announced that capital spending within the science budget will be protected — in real terms — up to the end of 2021. The Government’s Spending Review on 25 November will determine the science — and innovation — budget allocations for the rest of this Parliament.

The UK has fallen behind its competitors in terms of total R&D investment and this will put UK competitiveness, productivity and high-value jobs at risk if it is not reversed. The Government should produce a long term ‘roadmap’ for increasing public and private sector science R&D investment in the UK to 3% of GDP — the EU target. This would send an important signal about the long term stability and sustainability of our science and innovation ecosystem, supercharging private sector R&D investment from industry, charities and overseas investors alike.

A more robust system is needed to integrate capital and resource funding allocations. The Government should urgently review existing capital allocations to ensure sufficient resource is in place to fully ‘sweat our assets’. Sufficient resource funding will only materialise, however, with an upward trajectory in the resource budget.

The Spending Review is being conducted under present accounting protocols, dealing with capital and resource budgets for science separately. ‘ESA-10’ accounting rules will in future count resource expenditure on R&D as capital, reflecting the fact that all expenditure on science research is an investment — an asset — in future economic capacity. The Government in the Spending Review should make it clear that this rules revision will not be used as a means to change the underlying funding settlement.

The ‘dual support’ system has produced a world class and highly efficient system for scientific research. Any significant changes to this system, including the balance of funding between research councils and university funding councils, would require a clear justification, which has yet to emerge. The Government should make clear its continued commitment to the dual support system, and the previous Government’s 2010 iteration of the Haldane Principle in the forthcoming Spending Review. A significant element of research funding should continue to be channelled though both the research councils and the higher education funding authorities. Clear justification will also be needed for any significant change in funding allocations between the research councils, and we caution against a radical reorganisation which could potentially harm the research programme.

Any expansion of the innovation catapult network should not come at the expense of other innovation priorities. The Government should focus on consolidating the existing catapults, to ensure that all will have the necessary operating resource and business strategies to operate at peak capacity. To show a clear commitment to innovation more generally, the Government should ring-fence Innovate UK’s budget.

The Government should also retain the current system of innovation grants — rather than loans — as a key policy tool, alongside R&D tax credits, for de-risking innovation investment.

The Spending Review will have a profound impact on our science base and our future prosperity. We have to get it right. We have a duty to take care that our spending and structural decisions in this area do more than merely maintain the status quo. If we get our spending priorities, our policies, regulatory frameworks or our immigration policy wrong, we will be on the wrong side of history. The Government must ensure that the UK remains a scientific superpower.

Commercially-driven research should be funded by loans, not grants

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on October 27, 2015 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a very quick comment on an item in yesterday’s Financial Times. The article may be behind a paywall, so here’s a short extract giving the essential point:

Ministers are considering proposals to replace research grants to industry with loans, in a move that business leaders fear would damage Britain’s ability to innovate.

The reason for mentioning this is that I suggested the very same idea on this blog about five years ago. My general point was the logical inconsistency in swapping grants for loans in the case of university students on the grounds that they are the beneficiaries of education and should be able to pay back the investment through earnings, when the same argument is not applied to businesses that profit from university-based research. I wonder if BIS have been reading this blog again?

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat here my personal opinion view that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven, scientific research.

This is pretty much the opposite of what the Treasury seems to have been thinking for the last five years. It wants to concentrate public funds in projects that can demonstrate immediate commercial potential. Taxpayer’s money used in this way ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs if the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t, the grant has effectively been wasted. My proposal, therefore, is to phase out research grants for groups (either in universities or in business) that want to concentrate on commercially motivated research and replace them with research loans. If the claims they make to secure the advance are justified they should have no problem repaying it from the profits they make from patent income or other forms of exploitation. If not, then they will have to pay back the loan from their own funds (as well as being exposed as bullshit merchants). In the current economic situation the loans could be made at very low interest rates and still save a huge amount of the current research budget for higher education. Indeed after a few years – suggest the loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, it would be self-financing. I think a large fraction of research in the Applied Sciences and Engineering should be funded in this way.

The money saved by replacing grants to commercially driven research groups with loans could be re-invested in those areas where public investment is really needed, such as pure science and medicine. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, but that is accidental and likely to appear only in the very long term. The real motivation of doing this kind of research is to enrich the knowledge base of the UK and the world in general. In other words, it’s for the public good. Remember that?

Most of you probably think that this is a crazy idea, but if you do I’ll ask you to now think about how the government funds teaching in universities and ask yourself why research is handled in such a different way.

Science is Vital at the Conway Hall

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on October 27, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday, as promised, I went up to London to attend the Science is Vital event at the Conway Hall.I was a bit worried that I might not make it in time for the 7 o’clock kick-off, but it turned out that a meeting I was attending finished earlier than expected and I got to the venue in good time.

It was a fun evening, but you don’t need to take my word for it. Here is a video of the whole thing, which is basically a recording of the live webstream.  I learned a lot, especially from Andrew Steele (who appears early on); check out his website here. Did you know for example that the average expenditure per person per year in the UK on alcohol is £600, while the average expenditure per person per year in the UK on cancer research is a paltry £2.80?

P.S. There’s a nice discussion of wider issues raised by the Science is Vital campaign in today’s Guardian.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,561 other followers