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Funding for Science Research Councils following the Spending Review.

The UK science budget was spared the worst in George Osborne’s comprehensive spending review on October 20, to the relief of the research community.

Instead of a feared 20 per cent cut, George Osborne anounced that the cash allocated to science would be frozen at £4.6bn per year.

Science Is Vital, campaign, Mark Riley Cardwell, Mark Cardwell, Science, Gwyddor Science, Journalism, Cardiff, Wales

Science Is Vital campaigners, photo from The Telegraph

This was a relative success for the Science is Vital campaign, which lobbied parliament to preserve the UK’s ‘proud history of excellence’ in science.

But the announcement will not end all worries : against inflation, the frozen budget will mean an effective cut of 10 per cent over the next four years.

How will this effective decrease in funding affect science research in the next few years?

Although the exact figures have not yet been decided, Science Minister David Willets has suggested that of the £4.6bn total, a rough figure of £2.75bn will be allocated each year to RCUK, the umbrella group in the department of Business, Innovation and Skills which contains the seven research councils.

This number is down from the £3.2bn given to the research councils this year.

In addition, the Medical Research Council (MRC) will be protected in real terms, so its budget will increase proportionally to inflation. If the overall budget is declining in real terms, what is left for the other research councils is getting smaller.

Research Councils in RCUK

  • * Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
  • * Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • * Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
  • * Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • * Medical Research Council (MRC)
  • * Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
  • * Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

I spoke to Peter Coles, Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at Cardiff University School of Physics and Astronomy, who writes the excellent blog In The Dark.

He told me:

“The astronomy department gets most of its research funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council. At the moment, the success rate for research grant applications is around 10 per cent, but this number could fall as the budget is stretched.”

European Southern Observatory Chile Gwyddor Wales Mark Riley Cardwell Journalism Science Cardiff University

ESO in Chile - Photo from European Southern Observatory

“The school’s involvement in astronomy projects around the world is also funded by research council. These include the European Southern Observatory, the Gemini observatory, UKIRT and the James Clerk Maxwell telescope.

“Our access to these could end if we can’t secure money from the STFC.”

The Astronomy Instrumentation is a research group based in the school which develops instruments for ground and space based observatories, including ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory.

SFTC funding for the project is due for renewal in April, and there are fears it will not continue if the grant is not secured.

Peter said the problem with the threat of projects such as these being closed down is that specialist scientists will not want to stay in Britain.

“If projects are cancelled, specialist scientists wil go abroad and it will be very hard to convince them to come back. Experts will get restless and not stay if the ‘vibe is better in the US’ or other countries.”

Adrian Smith, the director general for business and research and now higher education and innovation at BIS will shortly decide on the specific allocations for each Research Council.

In addition, university funding from Higher Education Funding Council for Wales will be cut by 12 per cent over the next three years in the the National Assembly’s draft budget published last week.

But the amount of Quality-Related (QR) Research funding, which grants research money straight to universities rather then on a project basis has not been decided yet.

Until these figures are announced, the research community will be hesitant to make long term plans.