Funding science

For my first post on this Science and society blog, I thought I’d address the economy. I know, it’s a science blog but stick with me! The reason we, as scientists, have established Science Brainwaves is to communicate the science that you, the public, pay for. Your taxes are distributed to research councils that choose which projects to fund. This means scientists compete to get grants that pay for staff (including Ph.D students), bench fees and reagents.

Back in December, Alistair Darling swung an axe at UK science, cutting research budgets by £600m. This is just part of a slow but obvious demise in support for science since 2008, and more is to come with both major parties admitting that further cuts are inevitable after the election.

Science has been at the core of Britain’s success for over 400 years.  We have lead the world in technology and become disproportionately wealthy as a result. Our universities are among the best in the world and the high-tech sector is about the only industry we have left. With strong investment, since 1997 we have attracted the best scientists to our shores but now universities are starting to feel the pinch of stretched budgets. Departments are closing down and scientists who can’t get money to fund their research are taking their labs abroad. At the same time, university applications are at record levels.

It will take many years for the government to realise the damage that this lack of investment is causing.  With the best minds elsewhere, who is going to inspire the next generation of scientists? The UK, with it’s knowledge-based economy, needs great minds for the future. Our most valuable export is not a product of a factory but that of our universities.  Countries like America and Singapore are increasing investment despite the recession, realising the value of science to their economy. Cutting investment now is like skimping on costs when laying the foundations for a new house – it will undermine everything you do in the future.

2 thoughts to “Funding science”

  1. Hi Martin. Before I start my comment I wanted to say that I enjoyed your post and am pleased to see the economic issue being dealt with on a science blog. It is also great to see Sheffield’s postgrads working on a project like this. I look forward to reading more.

    With regard to the issues raised in this post, I am strongly in favour of the UK spending more money on research, but I am uncomfortable with the justification you provide. You may be right that the UK can, in part, thank scientific research for it’s relatively high GDP, but the extent to which this is true is surely an open question. As for your claim that the UK’s high-tech sector is "about the only industry we have left", I feel sure that something has got lost in translation because this is demonstrably false (mining, finance and logistics are just three that spring to mind). Furthermore, even if it was true, a large portion of the UK economic output that is directly related to scientific research comes from just two sectors: pharmaceuticals and biotechnology so the financial argument would be to channel more money into these areas. It isn’t even clear how much of the success of these sectors is due to government investment in research and how much is down to speculative in-house spending by private companies.

    Anyway, even if the UK’s relative wealth and success is due to science, it isn’t clear that more of this would do the majority of the UK’s citizens any good. Given its high GDP, the UK performs shamefully when it comes to adjusted measures such as income equality, quality of life and child well-being/poverty (the latter really is shameful when you look at the UNICEF report), not to mention other measures that are correlated with low income such as crime and obesity.

  2. Thank you Tom for taking the time to read and comment on my post.

    I was mainly arguing from a historical perspective, saying that the UK is in it’s current global position because of scientific innovation. To scale back this industry now would be to deny the UK of great advances and wealth in the future.

    There are of course other industries (I was exercising a little artistic license there) but it’s hard to think of one that doesn’t owe our research community a great deal. You’re right to say that it’s not clear how much government spending is to thank over private. But that’s because they are tightly entwined. You won’t find a research university that doesn’t receive significant funding as a result of private outsourcing for skills and expertise. So if university research moves abroad you can bet that private industry will follow.

    I think research here in the UK is of great economic value as I argue, but it’s also vital to the provision of state responsibilities that you mention. The recent Home Office report calling for more to be done to stop further sexualisation of young girls was authored by Dr Linda Papadopoulos, a clinical psychologist at London Metropolitan University. I’m arguing that the knowledge and skills contained in our universities are too valuable to lose. Ministers need to appreciate this asset when balancing their books.

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