Exquisite Life Exquisite Life Research Europe Research Fortnight

December 23, 2010

EPSRC funding cuts: will industry make up the difference?

by Alec Broers

Expenditure at the Engineeering and Physical Sciences Research Council is to be slightly less than might have been expected considering the government’s decision to maintain the science budget. But it could have been much worse.

It is about 3 per cent below the 2010/2011 level and will no doubt fall considerably due to inflation over the four years of the CSR settlement.  We have little idea how much it will fall as we seem to have lost our ability accurately to forecast economic trends.  The capital allocation has been severely cut, by about 50 per cent, which will make it difficult to keep laboratory equipment up to date, and the ongoing expenditure will only be sufficient to maintain the research quality if the funding is concentrated on the strongest researchers.

It is clear that EPSRC is taking the need for impact very seriously.  In the words of EPSRC chief executive David Delpy: “EPSRC’s research will focus on the needs of the nation, supporting our world-leading researchers and viewing funding as a strategic investment not a transfer of funds without obligation.”  He feels that it was the commitment to this strategy that helped secure the government’s decision to maintain the science budget, and I agree with him. 

The government after all was in an extremely difficult situation.  As the outgoing Chief Secretary of the Treasury said after the election: “there’s no money left” and, making things worse, years of increases in government spending had created our huge deficit.  Fortunately the Coalition has decided to tackle the deficit by setting priorities rather than spreading the pain uniformly, but in dealing with the 40 per cent cut to BIS it had to make the cruel decision to burden university graduates rather than cut the science budget.  The students have told them what they think about that decision.  It is now up to the research community to fulfil its obligations and produce real gains for the economy.

Another strategy EPSRC is using to achieve international competitiveness is to gather talent together to reach critical mass rather than letting every flower bloom independently.  For example, the Council will work with the Technology Strategy Board to set up the Technology Innovation Centres proposed by Hermann Hauser.  Researchers from academia, and especially from industry, are to be brought together either physically or virtually into these centres to work on projects that have impact on industrial innovation and on science. 

We know that large centres can work well by looking at the success of the Diamond Light Source (which I chair) and ISIS.  These projects have the scale to drive science and at the same time provide a real competitive edge for industry.  I cannot help but notice, however, that the resources allocated to the TSB and to these centres is less than a tenth of that allocated to science overall, which is the reverse of the situation in high-technology industry where traditionally ten times more is spent on developing science into products than is spent on the science itself.  It is, of course, the private sector that has to make up the difference, but will it do so? 

Alec Broers is past president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a member of the House of Lords.

Alec Broers

Alec Broers

Alec Broers is past president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a member of the House of Lords.