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The Spending Review and science: what we know and what we don’t

Since its election in May, the UK Government has been considering how it wants to prioritise spending over the rest of the Parliament. Yesterday afternoon, the Chancellor George Osborne presented these plans to Parliament, giving the first public confirmation of how much Government funding will be set aside for science from 2016/17 to 2020/21. MRC Public Affairs and Policy Manager Jane Bunce looks at what we know and what details are still to come.

1 Dec 2015: The post has been updated to confirm that Innovate UK funding is being kept outside the ring fence.

George Osborne visits the MRC LMB


The Conservative Government was elected on a pledge to eliminate the budget deficit, and, in further attempts to reduce public spending, deep cuts were expected in yesterday’s Spending Review and Autumn Statement 2015. In the end, the Chancellor confirmed that over the four years £12 billion of savings would be made to Government departments.

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the parent department through which research council funds are channelled, received an overall 17 per cent cut, compared with, for example, 24 per cent to the Treasury budget and 22 per cent to the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s resource budget. And while other parts of BIS, including higher and further education, are seeing heavy cuts, the science budget – the largest pot of public money funding UK science – seems to be largely spared.

The science budget, currently £4.7bn, received a “flat real” settlement over the current parliament, meaning money for science would increase each year to cover the expected rising costs due to inflation. In his speech, the Chancellor noted that this would equate to “£500m more by the end of the decade” – this is how much costs are expected to rise as the economy grows. This compares to the previous CSR (2010), when the science budget received a “flat cash” settlement – so the exact same figure was received each year (though the MRC was protected and received “flat real”). The Chancellor also reiterated the Government’s commitment to spending an additional £6.9 billion between 2015-2021 on capital, set aside for new buildings and laboratory equipment.

The Chancellor noted that Britain was “brilliant at science” and that “the Government will continue to prioritise investment in science to ensure the UK remains a world class centre of research.”

However, we don’t yet know exactly how much funding will be available for each research council including the MRC. In part, this is because it is not yet clear how many organisations and schemes will receive a share of that £4.7bn figure, and what those shares will be, as the details of what falls inside and outside the science budget have not yet been published.

The Government has also announced a new Global Challenges research fund, worth £1.5bn over five years (roughly £300m a year), which would be allocated from the £4.7billion science budget. The fund, which will form part of the UK’s overseas aid commitment, is designed “to ensure UK science takes the lead in addressing the problems faced by developing countries, whilst developing our ability to deliver cutting-edge research”. Details of who will deliver the fund and how are still to be announced.

What we do know is that research carried out by other Government departments is in addition to the £4.7bn science budget announced yesterday. As confirmed by the Chief Medical Officer for England, this includes protection for the large NIHR budget for health research, funded through the Department of Health (DH). And Innovate UK funding, channelled to business to support commercial R&D in the UK, will remain additional to the science budget.

The Government made a number of other announcements that fall within the medical research arena. This included a Dementia Research Institute, which the Prime Minister has said would be worth up to £150m and led by the MRC, along with the 100,000 Genomes Project, antimicrobial resistance and a new £1bn Ross Fund, also part of our international aid commitment, to invest in the research and development of infectious diseases including malaria and Ebola. There is no indication that there would be extra money for these.

Research architecture

The Government also announced important changes to the way research funding is delivered. Royal Society President and Francis Crick Institute Chief Executive Sir Paul Nurse has been carrying out an independent review into the research councils, and last week made his recommendations for changes including arranging the research councils under a single new body provisionally called Research UK.

This new body would have powers including taking responsibility for some administrative functions, establishing a common research fund for cross-cutting activity, and making adjustments to funding allocations between the individual research councils. Each research council would maintain its autonomy in relation to its own scientific strategy. The Chancellor yesterday announced that the Government would take forward review recommendations including the creation of Research UK. The Government said it would also “look to integrate Innovate UK into Research UK in order to strengthen collaboration between the research base and the commercialisation of discoveries in the business community”.

Although details of the funding allocation and its implications are not yet fully clear, the research councils have welcomed the Government’s recognition of the value of investing in research, against significant cuts elsewhere.

Professor Philip Nelson, Chair of the Research Councils UK Executive Group, said: “It means that the UK’s research base will be able to maintain its world-class research outputs, continue to partner with and attract industry, maintain its flow of trained researchers into the economy and society and continue to inspire the next generation.”

Over the coming months, the MRC will continue working closely with the Government and the other research councils to develop the details of the research budget, and ensure the best possible outcome for the medical research community and for research as a whole.

Jane Bunce

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