Fears over physical science funding in the UK

This week I went to a talk by David Delpy, current Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC). EPSRC are responsible for administering funding for academic research to, unsurprisingly, engineering and the physical sciences, and are one of seven research such councils under the umbrella body RCUK. His talk covered much of the current activities of EPSRC and the challenges and opportunities it faces in the upcoming 3 years. This post quickly summarises some of the messages from his presentation, slides from which can be found here. (N.B. these are from a similar presentation he gave earlier this year.)

In the last two spending reviews, the Chancellor George Osborne “ring-fenced” the science budget, protecting it from the cuts faced by other parts of the government. Yet this ring-fencing refers only to the absolute amount allocated by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to fund science research, and hides a more complex reality. It doesn’t infer on what the money should be spent, while science budgets in other government departments, still face cuts.

What about inside the ring-fence? Adjusted for inflation, a budget freeze actually means a real-terms cut.  Furthermore, while the overall budget is protected, the decision on how the money is distributed between the different research falls on BIS and how they perceive funding priorities.  So how does this affect physical science funding? EPSRC’s budget for 2014/5 is £800m, about £50m less than its peak in 2010/11, which equates to an inflation-adjusted loss of nearly 15% over that timespan (see slide 6). This is the reality of a “ring-fenced” science budget, with the UK research community, and especially those in engineering and physical sciences, now expected to do more with less in order to keep up with our international competitors.

Although the research funding might be protected, the research councils themselves face a squeeze on their operational costs. Their administrative budgets are controlled by BIS which, like other government departments, has to find substantial savings. RCUK are fully expecting that after the Dalton Review, commissioned by Vince Cable, administration budgets will be slashed by 50% or more. In his presentation, David Delpy pointed out the effect this will have on EPSRC’s ability to interact with their academics and process funding applications. He also claimed that EPSRC was already relatively thrifty, with only 1.5% of its total budget going on administration, compared to 4.6% in BIS.

Worse might be to come for EPSRC when the review of the research councils is announced in December. This will be the moment when the research councils find out how the science budget for 2015-16 will be divvied up, meaning EPSRC and the scientists it serves still face an uncertain few months.  In preparation for the review, each research council was asked to present best case, worst-case and status quo scenarios to BIS. Although the hope is that current funding will be maintained, the worst-case scenario throws up some unpleasant possibilities, including the revoking of existing grants.

Fears for the future of physical science funding in the UK seem to stem from the problem physical scientists have in demonstrating their wider importance to politicians, in particular set against the life and medical sciences.  For example, between 1996 and 2009, funding grew by over 40% in the life sciences, yet fell across all other research disciplines (see slide 23). In contrast, the corresponding life science boom in the US was at least accompanied by steady growth in other sectors.  Yet growth in life sciences is surely unsustainable without the physical sciences and engineering necessary to support it. As one member of the audience pointed out, a patient entering a hospital will first be diagnosed with a device developed using physics then treated with a drug synthesised by chemists!

So how should physical scientists get the message across?  It comes back to the impact agenda, much maligned by scientists themselves, but beloved by politicians and funders.  Delpy called for researchers to put together case studies demonstrating how engineering and physical science research has led to economic benefits for UK plc. Such examples would be critical to inform politicians in time for the next comprehensive spending review after the 2015 election.  Coming out of REF 2014, most engineering and science departments should already have studies that can be recycled but it is clear that keeping track on the “impact” of academic research is now a necessity for Universities and research institutions.

Osborne and David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, recently set out their science manifesto, identifying the “Eight Great” technologies they believe will shape the UK’s economic future.  EPSRC has taken responsibility for the areas of advanced materials, energy storage and robotics/autonomous systems and future funding calls will be increasingly aligned to them.  Although the government says it remains committed to fundamental research, illustrating potential economic returns is becoming a prerequisite of science funding. In May 2010, UK Science was staring down a barrel and fought vigorously for its survival. Willetts understood the argument and convinced Osborne to protect the science budget; now scientists are having to come to terms to the reality of that reprieve.

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