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January 10, 2011

NERC settlement confirms uncertainties ahead for science and engineering research, says David King

Cuts in funding will not help us meet "the biggest innovation challenge since the industrial revolution," says former UK government chief scientific adviser David King... 


Over the past few freezing cold months we have all become aware of the impact the environment can have on our everyday life, from transportation to the built environment to energy production. As we move forward through this century it will be critical to deepen our understanding of environmental science and human impacts on the environment in order to advance our knowledge of the complex and interacting systems of the planet.

Environmental science is also at the heart of our economy. With the UK’s environmental economy expected to grow by £48 billion over the next eight years alone, there are real opportunities for the UK to lead the world in this discipline. The areas include risk assessments around extreme weather, low carbon energy sources and monitoring climate systems—all critical to our future development and wealth creation.

I welcome the recent publication (20 December) of the Natural Environment Research Council delivery plan for 2011-2015. Its strategic agenda and the five key areas of focus include: increased focus on strategic research; increased economic impact and societal benefit; attracting and retaining top talent for the UK; transforming delivery of national capability; and shifting resources into front line science. These are in my view vital areas to concentrate on in order to maximise and deliver excellence.

However, the allocation to NERC and the other Research Councils confirm that the UK’s science and engineering community faces a very difficult four years ahead. Research funding lies at the heart of the UK’s economic recovery and future prosperity. Ten years ago, the UK Government understood that in the following decades science and technology—and the innovation and wealth creation that follows—would be key to our ability to face unprecedented new challenges: the deterioration of ecosystems; resource mismanagement and shortages; decarbonising our economy; and generating a new lean, mean, competitive manufacturing sector. These will require the biggest innovation challenge since the industrial revolution.

Some might argue that NERC has got off relatively lightly in the budget allocation. The programme budget is to be reduced by 3 per cent—excluding the effects of inflation, currently 3 per cent a year—over the next four years. At a time when our international partners are increasing their investment our decision looks short sighted. China saw a 30 per cent increase in its research budget from 2008 to 2009. Even this year they have continued to increase it with an 8 per cent rise in the science budget.

The US has also invested heavily in its research sector through public funding over the past year, introducing a substantial increase in research funding across board, as well as giving a large boost to alternative energy and environmental research. Furthermore In the past few months both France and Germany have published national strategies demonstrating their commitment to investment in research.

What I believe is more worrying is the decision is that the ‘capital’ part of NERC’s budget has been reduced by 50 per cent from 2012/13.  This spending covers maintenance and other long-term commitments for NERC, which can’t just be stopped. Therefore the funds will have to come from other sources, such as research grants. New high performance computing equipment is also needed to improve our environmental risk management capability.

The Government has made a pledge to be the greenest ever but this needs to be reinforced. We can’t continue to put off the difficult decisions on energy and the environment for ever - the time to invest is now. And within the UK Research Councils, priorities need to be grasped, priorities for the future competitiveness of the UK.

David King is director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford. He was the government's Chief Scientific Adviser under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and Head of the Government Office for Science from October 2000 to 31 December 2007.

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