£11m for a Higgs Centre for physics in Edinburgh. Uncapped places for undergraduates from 2014-15 with enhanced funding for STEM. And the promise of a Government science and innovation strategy for 2014. George does like to offer goodies to the science community.

Curious George

With today’s Autumn Statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has reiterated that science is a ‘personal priority’. Delve in to the paperwork, and you will find that he has invested £270m over the next 5 years for 5 centres on cutting edge quantum technology to be allocated by the EPSRC, and announced a fund of £375m over 5 years to support collaborative research and innovation between the UK and key emerging economies (£100m of which will be spent as part of a match funded programme with China). In a statement that demands further cross-government cuts of £1bn a year, these new allocations do suggest that George Osborne is holding to his commitments made in earlier budget announcements and his speech to the Royal Society. Science and innovation are high on his list of areas to cultivate rather than cut.

But…

Leaked memos from BIS suggesting that £100m could be ‘tucked in’ to the £4.6bn resource ringfence to cover costs incurred by exposure to an increasing student loans bill – an effective cut to those activities already in that ringfence – mean that the research community have valid reason to feel uneasy. Couple this with the Chancellor’s drive to find further cuts, and the overall BIS budget could be vulnerable.

So, will the science ringfence hold? The ringfence itself is a convention rather than a legal framework. Successive governments have committed to secure science funding from incursions from its parent Government department, whichever that has been, and to offer stability and confidence to the UK research system, but it has not been formalised. There is no strict definition of what should sit within a science ringfence – pre 2010 it included capital, post 2010, it was resource only, for example. But the value of the ringfence lies in the protection that remains within the parameters that the administration sets for it; once broken, or stretched, its value diminishes significantly.

Back to today. We understand that the funding for the new quantum technology centres is ‘new money’, or at least the £190m which will be spent on resource is, with the £80m for capital forming part of the previously announced £1.1bn science capital budget for 2015-16 and beyond. The emerging powers fund will come from the ODA, not the existing science budget. So as things stand, neither of today’s announcements are being ‘tucked in’ to an already stuffed science ringfence. Both are welcome, and valuable for the UK research base.

As for the rest of the science budget, it remains to be seen if George’s personal commitment will be enough to protect the science ringfence in its current guise. The Society would urge the Chancellor to hold fast to this commitment, and to help BIS find an alternative solution. We will be watching closely in the coming weeks to see what happens, and we look forward to seeing that strategy in a year’s time.