Exquisite Life Exquisite Life Research Europe Research Fortnight

December 22, 2010

Allocations detail hides nasty surprises

by Mark Downs

The government’s allocation of research funding carried headings that painted an expected picture of overall support. But the detail hides some nasty surprises, with financial support for gender equality in science slashed and “science and society” funds heavily hit.

David Willetts, universities and science minister, said of the announcement: “This is a strong settlement which demonstrates the importance the coalition government places on science and research.”

The Society of Biology has particular interests in the Medical and Natural Environment RCs' settlements but the primary focus was on the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The BBSRC is responsible for research across the life sciences and improving fundamental understanding of biological systems including microbes, plants, animals and humans at a molecular, cellular, whole organism and population level.

In the BBSRC delivery report, ‘Maximising Economic Growth in The Age of Bioscience’, the attention is on six main themes:

  • Maintaining excellence in bioscience
  • Powering economic recovery and growth in the new green bioeconomy
  • Ensuring a supply of highly skilled people
  • Meeting UK and global bioscience ‘grand challenges’
  • Underpinning national security
  • Transforming delivery and driving efficiency in the system
Compared with the previous comprehensive spending review in 2007 all research council funding is down in real terms. A cash cut of 3 per cent for the NERC and BBSRC represents a real terms cut of 12 per cent, whilst the welcome 5 per cent cash increase for the MRC still needs to be offset against inflation.

Times of austerity have encouraged interdisciplinary research across research councils. Novel, multidisciplinary approaches have become an accepted solution for many of the big research challenges over the next 10 to 20 years. This is potentially beneficial and the Society has sought to support the importance of interdisciplinary research for some time.

NERC and MRC play a major role in priority areas of interdisciplinary research with NERC contributing £305m to the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) programme and MRC contributing £83m to Ageing: Lifelong Health and Wellbeing programme. The BBSRC funding of £102m crosses both boundaries.

Building on current strengths the BBSRC has put its strategic emphasis on global food security, bioenergy industrial biotechnology and basic bioscience underpinning health.

Research funded by BBSRC is of great importance to society, from increasing resilience to livestock diseases including infectious diseases such as foot and mouth to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and from developments in cutting-edge bioimaging techniques to understanding energy in biological systems. However, although the strategic emphasis on priority areas will strengthen the focus of certain research, the enhanced focus may be detrimental to other areas of biological research and early career scientists.

The impact of the allocation of funding announcements on biology will become clearer in due course. Overall the allocations have reflected the government’s recognition of the role of bioscience in tackling major challenges which the Society of Biology wholeheartedly supports. However, the impact of higher than expected capital funding cuts, science and society cuts and the unexpected discontinued funding of UK Resource Centre for Women in SET (UKRC) will remain to be seen.  

In my view, the Government’s positive approach to bioscience is encouraging but these cuts still represent an enormous challenge. They mean that both established researchers and prospective PhD students will notice further difficulty gaining support in an already highly competitive application process.

Mark Downs is chief executive of the Society of Biology.

Mark Downs

Mark Downs

Mark Downs is chief executive of the Society of Biology.