Stark warnings on spending made by STFC’s Science Board

31 March 2014

Serious warnings about the cumulative effects of flat cash funding settlements on UK research were issued in a report by the science board of the Science and Technology Funding Council (STFC), published last week.

Stark warnings on spending made by STFC’s Science Board
Peter Grinter, ESRF

In the Programmatic Review 2012-13, the board expressed concerns that unremitting flat cash funding settlements would "irreversibly damage the UK science base".

The review was written before the government announced in February that the STFC's budget for 2015/16 would amount to flat cash for its core programme, but that there would be increased capital funding. There was also extra money for international subscriptions and operating large facilities, thus partly offsetting the effects of flat cash.

The board looked at three possible scenarios: flat cash, flat cash plus 10%, and flat cash minus 10%, and set out a programme for the STFC's spending priorities in each case. It also looked at an "optimal" funding scenario for the Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics (PPAN) programme of flat cash plus 10% and a "modest uplift" in spending.

The review said: "In all scenarios other than the 'optimal' scenario, there is erosion and loss of volume of the STFC programme." Examining the flat cash scenario, it said: "The STFC programme has been severely reduced over several years. The consequences of further constraining the programme over a prolonged period of time would be catastrophic."

In its recommendations to the STFC's council, the board said that UK science had managed to hold onto its leadership and international standing in the "last four difficult and constrained years". However, it noted: "The cumulative effect of this situation has led us to the point where, in all but the plus 10% financial scenario, major and lasting damage will be done to the programme.”

The review was produced with inputs from facility directors and department heads, principal investigators and seven standing advisory panels for the PPAN and large facilities programmes.

STFC's council will consider the report at its meeting in May, and if it is accepted, the council will draw on its recommendations in forming its plans for the STFC's programme for 2016 onwards. The detailed recommendations for each of the three funding scenarios were redacted from the report before it was published.

Commenting on the review, the IOP's chief executive, Prof. Paul Hardaker, said: "It's important that the UK keeps pace with the international competitors in science, if it is going to see the benefits of innovation and growth, and at the moment we have fallen behind the levels of funding that other key countries are putting into their science programmes.

"Part of this involves investing in our infrastructure and in the facilities that underpin our world-class science, which will enable us to punch above our weight."

According to BIS's international benchmarking report, the UK has spent around 1.8% of GDP on R&D in the last two decades, whereas the average spend of comparator countries has been 2.9%, and some are spending even more. South Korea, for example, has doubled its spending to 4% of GDP in recent years.

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