Paul Nurse welcomed the Chancellor’s £600 million investment in science this lunchtime, saying that the money ‘will hopefully help ensure that our world leading scientists have world leading facilities with which to work’.

The Society has become accustomed over the past two years to thanking the Chancellor for his investments in research capital. At every spending announcement since the 2010 Spending Review the Government has made ‘extra’ funding available for research infrastructure. I say ‘extra’ because, as just about every good science policy wonk knows, the 2010 SR saw a significant cut to capital expenditure – a total of £1.6bn across the spending review period, and that being without inflation factored in. (The Campaign for Science and Engineering have done some good work in this area, crunching the numbers on the science budget.)

As the BIS statement this afternoon explained, this new £600m brings the post 2010 investments up to £1.515bn, so not far off plugging the gap, to a flat cash level at least. That £1.515bn is made up of:

• £100 million in science investment projects (Budget 2011) – Babraham, Norwich Research Park, Harwell and Daresbury.
• £145 million for e-Infrastructure (October 2011) – e-infrastructure.
• £50m to develop a Graphene Global Research and Technology Hub (October 2011).
• £200m for additional science and innovation capital investment (November 2011) – small satellites, low carbon demonstrations, £62m for upgrades to Research Council infrastructure,and £80m for the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright.
• £100m for UK universities to stimulate private and charity investment in strategic research partnerships (Budget 2012) with a further £200m for this purpose announced in October 2012 at the Conservative Party Conference.
• £120m for space research in 2012-13 and 2013-14 to boost contributions to the European Space Agency (November 2012).
• £600m for ‘Research Council infrastructure, and facilities for applied research and development’ (December 2012).

The investments that have been made since 2010 have been allocated across a range of areas, and, while welcome, have raised a number of questions about how sustainable it is to allocate funding in an apparently ad hoc way. Are the ‘right’ projects getting funded, or the ones that sound exciting? Are there going to be enough researchers to use this shiny new kit given the real terms decrease in the science resource budget? Is funding being spent too quickly rather than in the long term strategic interests of the UK research base? These questions will persist, but it is reassuring to see that today’s money appears to be being directed towards priorities identified in the Research Councils’ recent strategic framework for capital investment.

As well as thanking the Chancellor, we have also got quite used to adding the rider that as welcome as these investments are, it is important that these should be made as part of a longer term framework and vision for the UK’s research base. We are beginning to see signs that the Treasury, along with David Willetts, is starting to think in these terms, the Chancellor’s speech at the Society last month offering a glimpse of an emerging narrative on growth, with science and innovation as a driving force. We have also seen the Liberal Democrats agree a party policy for science this autumn, and Labour are in the process of developing their plan for research.

Maybe, just maybe, there is a growing appreciation of the role that the broad spectrum of the UK’s excellent research base can play in creating the UK’s future prosperity. If so, I expect to hear more of Paul Nurse’s response to the Chancellor a few weeks go – ‘put your money where your mouth is’. But I also expect the research community will have to rise to the challenge, and demonstrate its value. Interesting times for us policy types, interesting times.

  • For one moment I thought this was Paul Nurse speaking in a new style RS press release! Certainly growth is the hot topic currently and Heseltine is being quizzed by the BIS committee next week on his report, which the Chancellor has sort of acknowledged in terms of agreeing to a single pot for regional growth projects to bid from. So it’s not just about science and research per se but how it integrates with other types of activity that contribute to economic growth.