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October 20, 2010

Science safe from major cuts?

The news broke yesterday evening that the UK's £4.6 billion science budget would be protected from cuts in today's comprehensive spending review. The Times, The Guardian, the BBC and the Financial Times all carried various versions of the story.

A flat cash settlement—that is, no changes to the science budget—for the next four years is probably about the best outcome the science community could hope for, but it still amounts to a 10 per cent cut over the four years once inflation is taken into account.

Given that researchers were bracing themselves for cuts of up to 25 per cent, and had taken to the streets in protest, this will be seen as a victory. But there are still questions left unanswered.

Piecing together the various reports, it seems that the "protected" money includes the budget for the seven research councils, the Higher Education Funding Council for England's quality-related research funding, the Technology Strategy Board and R&D tax credits. Major capital expenditure will be cut by 50 per cent, but a few projects have already been singled out as safe, including the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation and the Diamond Light Source synchrotron.

This leaves the fate of other big facilities in limbo. The Science and Technology Facilities Council has previously said that big cuts in capital funding could mean a big facility may have to be mothballed. With Diamond protected, is the ISIS neutron cource in danger?

And though the research councils' budget as a whole is safe from cuts, the allocations for the individual councils are still to be decided. The government is likely to exert some pressure on the councils to align their research programmes with the government's strategic priorities, and to maximise the return on investment. This could leave some councils with less obvious economic benefits—such as, perhaps, the Arts and Humanities Research Council—facing bigger cuts.

Finally, the higher education budget has not been protected. It is almost certain to face huge cuts—the Browne review of university finance indicated cuts of around 80 per cent. What the effect of this will be on the UK's universities remains unknown.

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