Preventing the spread of the Zika virus to the UK, ground-breaking cancer research, or the production of vaccines for deadly diseases; all important work, I’m sure you’ll agree, but have you ever wondered just who decides how and where allotted research money is spent?
Science funding is, frankly, something we take for granted. We expect breakthroughs, but we – or rather the government – want to achieve these on the cheap. Following the promise in 2010 of a ring-fenced £4.6billion for the scientific community, times have turned bleak following the myriad of cuts made by our Chancellor of the Exchequer. In August 2015, the public spend on research was below 0.5% of the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP): much less than our developed-economy counterparts. This prolonged uncertainty has proved too much for some engineers and scientists, prompting the emergence of pressure groups such as the “Campaign for Science and Engineering” (previously “Save British Science”) and “Science is Vital” to rally and raise awareness for, what is now, the dwindling flame of science funding. These groups have been actively working hard to remind the Government of the importance of maintaining a strong research and development core – the latter urging to send postcards to George Osborne, 1600 of which were delivered to him before the spending review.
The importance of science funding is not just concerned with the past couple of years either; the UK has always been a pioneer in scientific research. For example, we know that our DNA has a double-helix structure – a result of the trail-blazing work carried out by James Watson and Francis Crick. It was at King’s College London that Photograph 51 – an X-ray diffraction image of DNA – was shown to the two scientists, and together they determined the genetic ‘instruction manual’ required for humans and almost all other organisms in the World!
According to analysis by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in 2013, a mere 0.9% of the World’s scientists reside in the UK yet they produce 16% of the papers most highly cited. Do you believe this work could be done, and maintained, without funding? In short, probably not. We cannot expect innovations that enrich our World if we don’t support the scientists looking for them. Granted, the science budget is relatively well-protected by the Chancellor, but research budgets for other departments – such as those determining health, climate change, and energy – have been slashed. So much so, that the total government spend on engineering, science and technology is as low as it was in 1986.
The outcome of the Spending Review last November promised that the research budget would be frozen (in real terms) until 2020. This was coupled with a commitment to a long-term science investment of £6.9billion between 2015 and 2021. While welcomed by many within the scientific community, there is growing unease over the lack of details related to these promises. Is this a case of all talk and no substance? That is the question playing on the minds of many UK academics. Additionally, has the impending fear of cuts pre-review, followed by the post-review relief, masked the fact that there is, unquestionably, still much more investment required?
Although Osborne has managed to initially pacify many with his spending review, there still remains fundamental underlying issues. Firstly, why were cuts to science spending under consideration in the first place? Our European neighbours are continuing to invest in science, engineering and innovation to help kick-start their economies into gear, yet the UK finds itself rock bottom in the G8 for public science spending. Is this the message we want to send out to talented researchers and potential corporate investors? A government that does not fully support research risks deterring the engineers and scientific pioneers of tomorrow, much to the demise of the academic foundations that our country is built upon. To those who question the importance of attracting the best scholars from abroad, it is worth noting that three of the last five Nobel Prizes for science won in the UK have gone to foreign researchers.
Furthermore, the current turbulent atmosphere surrounding a potential “Brexit” does not help matters; any hostility between ourselves and the EU is the last thing UK science needs. While the notion of saving money remains, it appears the Chancellor has forgotten how he can make it. Give a little to get a lot. If we properly invest in science, who knows what we can create and what breakthroughs we can make. Hopefully, we will find out sooner rather than later.
Image courtesy of Science Museum London, image hosted on Wikipedia.