It’s been one month since Rt Hon David Cameron MP formed the first Conservative majority Government in the UK since 1992. It’s also one month until his re-appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rt Hon George Osborne MP, delivers the first Budget of this parliament, in which this Government’s first spending plans will be set out.
In the run up to the election the Society, with our sister Academies, set out the case for public investment in research and innovation to all the political parties. As the post-election dust settles and we await this Government’s policy and spending priorities, it’s timely to take stock of what we have learnt so far, and what we might expect over the coming months.
What we knew
Last year, the Coalition published a ten-year Science and Innovation Strategy “Our Plan for Growth” under the oversight of two Conservative Ministers. The new government are not bound by this, but it is likely this will shape the way forward. The Strategy also announced the Nurse Review of the Research Councils and the Dowling Review of Business-University collaboration. The recommendations of these reports will both be landing on the desk of the new Minster for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson MP, before the autumn.
With a majority in place, the Conservative party will be planning to use their mandate to deliver on their manifesto promises. We looked at these in detail before the election, comparing the parties’ commitments on research and innovation, education and energy and the environment. The Conservatives were generally positive about the value of research and its role in the UK’s future, but they stopped short of making any spending commitments, or confirming that the ring fence around the science budget would be maintained.
More broadly, the Conservative party have been clear about their plans to cut public spending to eliminate the deficit over the coming parliament. Although George Osborne has declared that science is “a personal priority” for him, the level of projected cuts to all Departments over the next few years could have implications for science spending. The details of these cuts were limited before the election, but are beginning to become clearer now.
What we have learnt since May
The Queen’s speech on 27 May officially opened this parliament, and announced many of the Bills that this Government is planning to introduce, giving the first glimpse of their planned legislation. Not much was directly relevant to science, but the devil will be in the details as these Bills come through parliament. Many—such as the Immigration Bill, Cities and devolution Bill and of course the EU referendum Bill—could have significant indirect effects on the research base.
Ahead of the Summer Budget, the Chancellor has already announced plans for in-year savings that will be made from Departmental budgets for 2015-16. This includes £450 million from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which administers the lion’s share of research spending. It has been reported that the science budget will be protected in this round, but efficiency savings are going to be expected in higher and further education.
The road ahead
On 8 July, the Chancellor will present his first Budget of this parliament, which will begin to set out the Government’s longer term spending plans. We don’t know what will be said about science, but between the Summer Budget and the broader comprehensive spending review—that is due to report in the Autumn—we can be sure that investment in research will be thoroughly reviewed.
The period that will be covered by the spending review is unknown—though it can’t be longer than this parliament—but it’s clear that decisions made this year will determine the environment for research in years to come. The Society will be continuing to make the case for research, calling on this government to increase investment in science to support the UK’s future growth and productivity, tackle the grand challenges facing society, and ensure that we can reap the benefits of the UK’s excellent research base.