MPs urge chancellor George Osborne to recharge UK's "science superpower"
4 min read
10 November 2015
With a report on research funding claiming Britain has been "shackled" by under-investment in science, MPs have called for chancellor George Osborne to use this month’s spending review to raise investment in the sector.
The “Science Budget Report“, by the Commons science and technology committee, claimed that with 0.9 per cent of the world’s population, and 3.2 per cent of its R&D spend, Britain produced 15.9 per cent of its “most important research output”.
The UK is home to four of the top six universities in the world. British research is cited in 10.9 per cent of all patent applications, it ranks second in the “Global Innovation Index”, and stands in fourth place for university-industry collaboration.
However, Britain’s £4.7bn science budget has been frozen since 2010, which has meant a cut of six per cent. “This has left the UK spending 1.7 per cent of GDP on science and research, below the OECD average of 2.4 per cent and behind the 2.8 per cent and 2.9 per cent spent by the US and Germany,” the report said.
This point was echoed by MP Nicola Blackwood, who suggested that “many have expressed concern that total investment in research and development in the UK is historically low and falling”.
She claimed that many scientific facilities were unused because of a lack of funds. She said: “At a time when the government is focusing on productivity, it is farcical that we are not realising the full value of our capital investments because new science research facilities do not have the annual resources to run at capacity – because ‘batteries are not included’ with capital spending. This must be put right as a matter of urgency, not to mention common sense.”
Blackwood added: “The UK is a science superpower and an understanding of science is important for us to deal with complex societal issues, such as ageing, contagious diseases, climate change and antibiotic resistance. Our scientists will be at the forefront of meeting these challenges. We should supercharge the science base. That won’t be achieved with a ‘flat-cash’ settlement. A clear roadmap to increased spending would be a signal of government intentions and would attract further jobs and investment to the UK.”
This lack of funding was highlighted in 2014, when 30 scientists – including Nobel Laureates – wrote to The Telegraph about the current system of funding for scientific research.
They said: “Sustained open-ended enquiries in controversial or unfashionable fields are virtually forbidden today and science is in serious danger of stagnating.”
Lead signatory Donald Braben, professor of earth sciences at University College London, suggested that the major scientific discoveries of the 20th century would not have happened under today’s rules, as they would not have received funding.
As such, the committee report called on the government to increase R&D investment to three per cent of GDP.
“The committee paints a vivid picture of one of the world’s leading scientific nations shackled by under-investment but, crucially, primed for a step-change in productivity, innovation and wealth generation,” said Brian Cox, professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester. “The foundations are strong, and the message to government is clear: invest now to grow our economy, inspire our young people and make Britain the best place in the world to do science.
“Anything less than a long term commitment to increased investment in science will be grossly negligent and damage our country, perhaps irreparably.”