The Slow Squeeze on Science Funding
Following a campaign lead by high-profile scientists last year, the government agreed to protect funding for scientific research from the worst of the cuts inflicted by the Comprehensive Spending Review. There was a collective sigh of relief in science departments up and down the country: funding levels would be preserved on a “flat cash” basis – i.e. the same overall numbers but no inflationary increases – and with the current government, that actually passes for a good deal. But the relief has been short-lived, because the amount of funding for the individual universities which do the research is being eroded, and over the next few years this could threaten the infrastructure that makes scientific research possible.
Universities don’t just provide education; they’re also the setting for a lot of the most innovative research being carried out today. The kind of research carried out in universities is rarely done in the private sector because it’s a often long way from anything that can be turned into a product that will make money but it makes a huge contribution to our understanding of science, and some of this research could be important in the future. During its first few decades, computer technology was developed almost exclusively in universities and publicly funded research institutes because there were few commercial uses for early computers, but their successors have had a huge influence on our lives. Some of the things being developed by university researchers today will prove to be very important, but it could be years before we see any of them.
Eventually, knowledge trickles through to companies, which benefits the economy – and it might even improve lives at the same time, for example by providing better medical treatments – so society does benefit from all of the public money that goes into science. It’s also good for the universities, because a department with a reputation for producing good research can attract better staff and more students, and goes on to continue producing useful research. It’s a self-sustaining loop, but it needs government funding to maintain the facilities which make it all possible.
Last month the first cuts were announced, with the government denying funding for several major projects that the Research Councils (the organisations which distribute public money to research projects ) had considered to a high priority. Most of the news coverage focussed on the effect this would have on Physics and Astronomy because the UK has now been forced to withdraw subscriptions to major international facilities, but the effects will be felt across scientific disciplines. Capital expenditure funding, which is used to buy the largest items, is now almost non-existent, and from now on the Research Councils will only pay for half of any item that costing £10k-£100k, leaving universities to find the rest of the money from their general budgets.
This week there was another announcement, this time giving the details of two new “efficiency” initiatives that will allow the Research Councils to save even more money by clawing it back from existing projects, and reducing the amounts that they pay to universities for indirect costs, which help to fund the infrastructure that makes research possible. For the first of these, the “top slice”, universities will be invoiced for the efficiency savings they’re expected to find across all of their grants from each Council. This is the second year that money has been taken back from existing grants: last year individual grants had their budgets reduced, but this time the process has been streamlined to reduce the administrative burden for the Research Councils, shifting it instead to universities.
The other cut affects new grants, and will take a year-on-year percentage of the indirect costs (which contribute towards the university’s general running costs; these are sometimes called overheads) awarded for each project, depending on how efficient the Research Council thinks that particular university is. Those judged to be most efficient will have reductions of 1% or less, but the least efficient will be told to save 5% year-on-year.
This is a significant shift in policy, because the system which has been in place since 2006 has allowed universities to claim indirect costs based on what it actually costs to run their institution. Whereas previously academics would often try to submit grant proposals with unsustainably low budgets because they thought that this would make their applications more likely to succeed, since 2006 universities have been encouraged to set fixed rates for indirect costs which are verified annually through a lengthy auditing process. This means that the government is forcing universities back to a one-size-fits-all view of research costs, and shrinking their general budgets at exactly the same time as those budgets will be expected to cover more of the costs associated with research.
In Higher Education today, the world leaders are determined not by the quality of their teaching, but by the quality of their research, and there’s no way of avoiding the fact that good research is expensive. There has been plenty of debate over whether British universities offer the kind of academic salaries that will attract candidates who will allow them to compete with the top private institutions in the US, but by focussing solely on pay, they’ve ignored the other factors that motivate scientists. Those who make it to the top of their profession are driven by a desire to advance their research, and will choose to work in an environment that gives them the best chance of success, not just the best remuneration. When George W. Bush introduced a policy preventing public funds from being used to support embryonic stem cell research, American scientists working in that area of research dispersed across the globe rather than accept the new limitations. As research budgets are gradually eroded and facilities go downhill, the government risks triggering a similar phenomenon here, but across science as a whole instead of in one small sub-group.
We live in a country which has a great history of scientific discoveries, but if the government continues to under-fund the facilities that make research possible, then the only future for British science is in the history books.