MPs debate how best to support science

Posted on June 11, 2013 by

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Last week MPs discussed how best to support science and research. They covered a wide range of issues, including the amount we are and should be investing into research and development as a nation, research in the NHS, the effect of immigration policies on attracting students and scientists to the UK, women in science, and open data. I’d recommend reading the full debate if you have time but if you’re busy (as we all are), here’s a summary…

R&D investment

Julian Huppert called for this Westminster Hall Debate and so kicked things off. Julian is a research scientist himself, and author of last year’s Lib Dem policy paper Developing a future: Policies for science and research

He started by highlighting the major role science plays in our economy – the pharmaceutical industry generates a trade surplus of £5.5 billion for instance – and the great success stories we have – like the MRC’s discovery of monoclonal antibodies, which has earned £390 million in royalties. But he went on to say  that this is at risk:

[UK R&D spending has] dropped to just 1.76% of gross domestic product in 2010—well below the European Union average and, for the first time ever, less than China, not to mention pretty much all our other global competitors… We are particularly behind in public sector funding: 0.57% compared with Germany’s 0.85%, which gives Germany a huge lead.

He praised the Government for protecting the science budget in the 2010 comprehensive spending review but said this still equates to a real-terms cut and capital funding took a very large cut (analysis by CaSE shows that the £1.7 billion shortfall in research capital following the 2010 Spending Review has been reduced to just over £330 million following a string of additional commitments).

Responding later in the debate, the science minister David Willetts explained what the ring-fenced science budget includes:

It is deliberately and explicitly a current spending pledge for this Parliament, which means it brings together the quality-related research funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, running at about £1.6 billion a year, and the spending of Research Councils UK, running at approximately £2.8 billion a year. In addition, there are specific items such as the funding for the learned societies and the Higher Education Innovation Funding programme, which get us to the £4.6 billion ring fence.

And he went on to say that there are opportunities for efficiency savings – like universities sharing big pieces of equipment. He said he hoped he could achieve this to offset the effect of inflation which is eroding the value of the ring-fence.

Both Julian and Shabana Mahmood, the Labour Shadow Minister for Science, called for a long-term approach to funding, saying that it is needed to show investors that the UK is serious about science (the Lib Dems propose a 15-year 3%-above-inflation increase in a ring-fenced science and research budget). Recounting a recent breakfast hosted by the APPG on Medical Research and letter in the Times, Julian said:

There was a clear message from academics such as Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society; medical charities such as Cancer Research UK; and industry, such as GlaxoSmithKline, that if we cut now, it would be a huge and clear signal to business that they should not invest in Britain….. Long-term funding is needed from the Government to ensure the continuation of the UK as a place blessed with a vibrant research eco-system

Julian praised the Biomedical Catalyst Fund for supporting innovative companies to commercialise research and highlighted the importance of the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF), which ensures donors’ money is spent on what they expect – research to develop treatments – while the government covers the maintenance of labs, lighting and heating in universities. The value of CRSF to charities and scientists was shown in a letter in the Telegraph recently he said, asking David Willetts to confirm that it would be protected – unfortunately that promise never came.

David did however acknowledge that government spending has an effect of “crowding in” spending by industry, pointing to £700 million private investment that the government has brought in with its own £300 million investment. And he said the government has got a long-term strategy for capital investment – the Research Councils UK Strategic Framework for Capital Investment.

The NHS is a huge asset for research in the UK

Julian said that we must make better use of the NHS for research.

I am pleased that we now have, as a result of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, a duty to promote research in the NHS…. More patients should be told about the trials that are available, and there is a lot of work from the Association of Medical Research Charities and others that highlights that.

He went on to express concern at rumours that the MRC might be transferred to the Department of Health:

There must be a separation between the implementation—actually doing health care—and the pure research that the MRC does. The council is not the same as the National Institute for Health Research, and I hope we will not see such a transition.

Building a workforce for science

Ensuring the UK is a world-leader in science is about more than just investment, Julian said:

The UK has to build a highly skilled work force to be able to attract industry and innovation.

Science education must be improved he said, especially in the early years, to provide a supply of future scientists, and both Julian and Shabana highlighted the importance of promoting science careers to girls and making sure that the profession becomes less dominated by men. David Willetts agreed there is still much they can do.

Immigration was also discussed. Julian and Shabana both said that the Government’s efforts to reduce immigration was resulting in overseas students and scientists being discouraged from coming here, something that is hugely damaging to our higher education system and scientific community. Shabana explained:

Higher education is our seventh largest export… It is worth billions of pounds to the country… At a time when we are desperate for economic growth, the deliberate shutting down of one of our largest export industries is a big problem.

David Willetts did not agree with Labour’s immigration figures or that the Government’s policies were having a detrimental effect. Adding that they have no intention of capping the number of overseas students coming to the UK, though Julian  countered saying that there is a perception that we are not welcoming.

How open access can support growth

Julian used the end of his speech to outline the importance of sharing information – data of different types, research findings and making sure policy-makers had access to academics, whom they could ask for advice. He said open access could support fledgling businesses but more work was needed in the implementation of open access policies, as is more funding.

David Willetts agreed that open access is crucial for UK science:

our lead in the global debate on open access and open data ensures that we are seen as serious players in the science debate. Indeed, I look forward to putting on the agenda for discussions with G8 Science Ministers in London, just over a week from now, what we can do to agree on further progress towards open access to research findings internationally and—even trickier, probably—how we can ensure greater access to the data behind the research findings.

What next?

George Osborne said at the end of last week that science is a “personal priority”, which many took as a signal that science spending will be protected. He will announce departmental spending for the financial year 2015-16 on 26 June, but after that it will be up to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to decide how it spends its allocation. Osborne didn’t give much away on the rumours that MRC could be moved to the Department of Heath, saying all options were open.

We have been making the case for investment in science and greater support for medical research charities over the past few months and will continue to do so. Our chief executive, Shar Nebhrajani, spoke last week at a press conference calling for the preservation and growth of the UK science budget. And writing in New Scientist yesterday, Shar argued that moving the MRC to the Department of Health could damage the discovery science that the UK research community builds upon to create new treatments and improve lives.  We are also supporting the Science is Vital campaign, which is petitioning the government to bring public R&D investment up to 0.8% of GDP.

Posted in: Policy