The Lords questioning government over science cuts this morning

Posted on December 22, 2010 by

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There was a short question on science funding in the Lords this morning which gave all the expert science peers a chance to raise concerns over Monday’s announcements on how the science budget is being distributed. Unfortunately the minister was not saying much more and not answering any of the specifics. Still it was a good opportunity for peers to flag up a few issues:

What proportion of government investment in science will be protected from cuts in public expenditure; and what advice they are giving to research institutions that are affected by any cuts (Baroness Jones of Whitchurch);

Phil Willis – AMRC’s new Chair – mentioned the scale of investment in medical research from charities – over £1 billion in 2009-10 – and the importance of the government partnering this investment through the charity research support fund to cover full economic costs in universities. The Minister didn’t respond with any specifics on this; to find out more, we are waiting for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to announce how they plan to distribute the money they were allocated on Monday – more on this process and when to expect this here.

Responding the minister did restate the announcement on Monday that the Medical Research Council (MRC) would be able to keep income from their patents; previously this was capped at £15 million and the rest went back to the Treasury – see Times article (behind paywall) for a bit more on this which suggests that this could represent an extra £24-£28 million a year for medical research. For more detail on how much MRC research leads to patents etc check out this report they published back in October; “24 new products and interventions based on MRC research were launched onto the market between 2006 and 2009”.

Also mentioned were the science budgets for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – the research councils fund across the whole UK but other research funding, through universities, the NHS etc. are devolved so we will have to wait to hear more on them; and investment in fundamental research and capital investment.

More analysis of Monday’s science budget announcements and the key themes on Beck Smith’s blog and Research Fortnight blogs.

UPDATE – now available online in full:

House of Lords

Public Expenditure: Investment in Science

Question

11.19 am

Asked by Baroness Jones of Whitchurch

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proportion of government investment in science will be protected from cuts in public expenditure; and what advice they are giving to research institutions that are affected by any cuts.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Baroness Wilcox): My Lords, within BIS, a substantial amount of funding for science and research programmes—£4.6 billion per annum—has been protected within a ring-fence for the four years of the spending review. Separately, the spending review stated that the Department of Health will increase spending on health research in real terms, and we expect the Ministry of Defence research budget to increase in cash terms over the spending period. It is too early to tell what the implications of the spending review will mean for science spending in other departments.

On the part of the Question that deals with advice, the way in which independent institutions make decisions about increases or decreases in their level of research funding is a matter for those institutions.

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: I thank the Minister for that reply, but does she acknowledge that only 50 per cent of recent government spending on science research falls within the protected budget, which the Government have heralded so much? Does she recognise that massive cuts are being predicted in departments such as DECC and Defra, as well as the £440 million by RDAs, which will be lost? At a time when our global competitors are increasing investment in R&D, what message does that send about our prospects for future economic growth?

Baroness Wilcox: As I have already said, a large proportion has been protected in a ring-fence, and two of the biggest spending departments outside BIS, the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence, are maintaining or increasing their research budgets. Other government departments have not yet decided their research budgets; for them, this question is a little premature. We will have to look at other areas such as capital funding, as we know, and no doubt I shall answer questions on them in a moment. They have been very well provided for over the past few years, and I am afraid that capital funding will have to wait until we get front-line science where it should be, in front of the rest of the world.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s response on the Haldane principle, the restatement of which is a welcome clarification.

On capital spending, I applaud the continued investment in Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire and the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation in London. They are hugely important projects.

Mr Willetts’ statement refers to further decisions on capital projects of strategic importance. When can we expect those further decisions? They may be very important indeed.

Baroness Wilcox: I thank my noble friend for his support and encouragement. Of course, the Haldane principle, which is already established, is very important to us.

On the announcements by my right honourable friend in another place, which he hopes and predicts he will be able to make, unfortunately I can say nothing about them at this stage. Like my noble friend, however, I hope that these investments will go ahead.

Lord Broers: My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of Diamond Light Source, and expenditure there will certainly be very beneficial. While the Minister has mentioned capital expenditures and the cuts, will she give us an idea of whether the Government will try to recover these capital expenditures before the four years of the CSR are up? These 50 per cent cuts in capital that have been handed to the research councils will progressively deplete our equipment and reduce our competitiveness.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Broers, always leave me slightly gasping because he is such an expert engineer and has such experience in the field. He must know that all we can say at the moment is where we are and what we hope to achieve in the next four years. I can say no more on this subject at the moment.

Lord Willis of Knaresborough: My Lords, I declare an interest as the chair of the Association of Medical Research Charities. While, like many people, we welcomed the Minister’s very skilful settlement to the research councils on Monday, the reality is that there will be an 8 to 10 per cent cut in funding over the next four years. Will my noble friend confirm that there will be no cut in the full economic costs of research council grants to universities? Will she also confirm that the Charity Research Support Fund will be maintained fully, so that the £1 billion that research charities give to our universities for research will be maintained will full economic costs?

Baroness Wilcox: I will talk first about the Medical Research Council. I think there was a question in there about the budget. We have taken into account the fact that we expect the MRC to have additional commercial income from patent licensing et cetera, which will reduce the amount of headline budget increase. I understand the noble Lord’s worries. I think I can commit us to spending as it is now but no further.

Lord McAvoy: My Lords, can the Minister give us an assessment of the damage done to the credibility of the Government’s programme of cuts by the expressions of opposition to it by their own Liberal Ministers Webb, Moore and Cable?

Baroness Wilcox: I am sorry, my Lords—none whatever. We are as one, as far as I am concerned.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, will my noble friend accept from a former Cabinet Minister for Science and Technology how much she and her colleagues are to be congratulated on what is a strong settlement? Will she also recognise that on all sides of this House there is a positive commitment to the importance of the science budget? Can she share with us the figure for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Baroness Wilcox: I thank my noble friend for that question. On how much of what we say applies to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, I can confirm that the research council fund across the United Kingdom is without geographical bias. My department works closely with the Governments and funding bodies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to come to these decisions. It seems a fair decision, and we have had a strong settlement. I think the science community is surprised by how well we have managed to do, given that when we came in we faced real financial problems. Science is so important to this country.

Lord Peston: Is the noble Baroness aware that one of the few areas in which our country remains world-class is that of fundamental research in the natural sciences? If there is one area that is in grave danger of being cut it is fundamental research in the natural sciences, revealing the total inadequacy of the Government’s approach to these matters.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, there are many areas in which we have had to make cuts. Let us face it; no Government want to come in and make cuts as soon as they get there. It is not a position that we wanted to be in but it is the position that we are in. There is no doubt, however, that the previous regime did wonderful things with science. We have a previous Science Minister here with us today. I acknowledge the work, time, commitment and money that he personally gave to science. That said, other parts of the Government frittered money away, and we are where we are.

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