George Osborne and Danny Alexander

George Osborne and Danny Alexander. Image via GOV.UK, under the Open Government Licence v3.0

‘Science’ was name checked six times in last week’s Autumn statement, the same as ‘welfare’ and more than the ‘NHS’.

How will this be seen in reality by the scientific community?

Capital gains

Perhaps the most important decision for science was the allocation of the £5.9 billion investment in research capital. This covers 2016-2021 and had been announced in last year’s ‘mini’ spending review. Three billion of this will be invested in existing facilities. This resonates with the joint UK national academies call for investment in maintenance and upgrades, as well as shiny new buildings. The remaining £2.9 billion will form a ‘Grand Challenges Fund’, which will enable the UK to invest in major research facilities of national significance.

Northern Powerhouse

A central theme of the Chancellors speech was building a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to geographically rebalance the UK economy. Part of this includes capital investments in science including:

  • £235 million in the advanced materials Sir Henry Royce Institute
  • £113 million in big data at Hartree, Daresbury
  • £20 million for an innovation centre on ageing in Newcastle

While the speech focused on science investment in the North, digging into the accompanying documentation reveals that investment will be spread more widely, for example:

  • £60 million to extend the capabilities of the National Nuclear Users Facility, which involves partners with sites across England, though many are in the North.
  • £31 million in new energy security and innovation centres (location unknown but it sounds like there will be a few of them)
  • £95 million to take the lead in the next European mission to Mars (again, location unknown)

Planned links between the Sir Henry Royce Institute and Oxbridge also didn’t make the speech.

All these announcements are part of an £800 million pot earmarked for major new research facilities with the details of the balance yet to emerge. This is one part of the £2.9 billion ‘Grand Challenges’ fund. Another involves £900 million to meet future Grand Challenges. The Government plans to launch a process of international peer review on further proposals received through the earlier capital consultation upon which a decision will be made in the 2015 Budget – presumably this deals with the remainder of the Grand Challenges money.

In addition, London was announced as the location of the £42 million Alan Turing Centre for research into big data. The funding for this had been previously committed in the last Budget and it is unclear whether this is counted as part of the capital investment or will come from another source.

Additional funding

While much of the Statement concerned the dispersal of existing funds there were indications of some additional money for science. The High Value Manufacturing Catapult will receive an additional £61 million to meet increasing demand and provide outreach and technical support from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This was smaller than the hundreds of millions for Catapults flagged in a recent Financial Times article but industrial research got some other sweeteners including:

  • R&D tax credit rates are to be increased for both the SME scheme (from 225% to 230%) and the large companies scheme (from 10% to 11%) from 1 April 2015.
  • The government is providing a further £400 million to support venture capital through the British Business Bank’s Enterprise Capital Funds programme.
  • There are also several measures to incentivise entrepreneurs, including facilitating up to £500 million of new lending in 2015-16 under the Enterprise Finance Guarantee scheme.

Other additional spending of note was £9 million more to increase the prize fund for driverless car test beds across the country and £28 million for a Formulation Centre to design new products across numerous sectors by combining different gases, liquids and solids.

The sources of these additional pots of money have yet to be declared. Hopefully it will be genuinely new money rather than moving investment from one part of the research system to another.

Education boost

The big announcement for higher education was the introduction of income contingent loans for postgraduate students, planned to be available from 2016-17. The loans will be worth up to £10,000, and will be available to under-30s undertaking a postgraduate taught master’s course. Contrary to previous media speculation they will be available to students across all disciplines – not just the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects.

The statement also confirmed that in 2015-16 (before the new loans are introduced) the Higher Education Funding Council for England will provide matched-funds bursaries of up to £10,000 for 10,000 postgraduate students, using funding announced last year.

A gain for Further Education was the announcement that employer National Insurance contributions liability will be abolished for apprentices aged under 25, from April 2016.

Flood defences

Finally there was £2.3 billion for flood and coastal defences as well as plans to make business contributions to flood defence schemes tax deductible. This comes soon after the launch of the Society’s ‘Resilience to extreme weather’ report of which concern around flooding was a major theme.

What next?

The Government’s much anticipated Science and Innovation Strategy is expected any day. Hopefully this will be accompanied by a bit more detail about the announcements in the Autumn Statement. Overall the Statement was quite good for science, although the wider picture may not be as rosy as a very tough spending review looms next year.