In his Autumn Statement Chancellor George Osborne once again tried to wrap himself in the Science and Technology flag. As the economy lurches between recession and weak growth, in an effort to inject some hope and optimism he likes to talk about Britain’s hi tech future. So during his speech last week, he sought to talk about investment in science, broadband and business support.
Or did he? What he actually announced was the return of just some of the budget that he cut from the science capital spending. In the comprehensive spending review of 2010 he slashed science capital spend by 50%, leading to substantial cut backs in our science infrastructure.
Since then, in a series of ad hoc announcements he has returned about £1.4 billion, about the same as what he previously cut allowing for inflation. But the money has not, so far, gone back into the same pot. The announcements have been for specific projects favoured by the Chancellor.
This is no way to fund our world beating science base. What science needs is a long term funding plan - like the one which Labour put in place in 2004, and the Tory-led government abolished. The big scientific projects can have paybacks over decades. The Large Hadron Collider, which recently garnered media interest worldwide with the almost certain discovery of the Higgs Boson, was begun in the 1980s.
And as with the LHC, a significant portion of the UK’s science infrastructure budget is committed to international projects over many, many years. So the actual amount of discretionary spend is much less than the ostensible budget. A 50% cut was a massive hit, and these more recent announcements are not going to repair the damage. Capital expenditure typically requires at least 10% of ongoing operational spending support – electricity, staffing etc. The Government seems to expect the science community to find this from other budgets which have also been cut.
The Chancellor talked about ‘infrastructure and facilities for applied research and development’. The Treasury Green Book gives a little more detail: “This investment will support the development of innovative technologies and strengthen the UK’s competitive advantage in areas such as Big Data and energy efficient computing, synthetic biology and advanced materials.”
The Treasury does not see fit to share with the public the reasoning behind these choices, though they are clearly important areas. In Big Data and computing in particular we do not appear to be capitalising on our theoretical strengths as much as we could. We are no longer home to one of the world’s top 10 computers, or even one of the top 20. Whether you consider Babbage or Turing as the inventor of the modern day computer, they were both British and many of the advances in valves and then semiconductors were pioneered here.
While there is debate on the relative importance of these different areas and sectors, the fact that it is the Treasury which is allocating the money to the parts of the science and research community it prefers does raise serious concerns. All governments since 1945 have allocated science funds in accordance with the Haldane principle, by which government decides the overall amount and the research community decides where it is best spent. This reflects the belief that those in a certain field are best placed to identify true scientific excellence.
The Haldane principle is not without its detractors: Some say that it does not give enough influence to the elected government of the day; that it gives too much autonomy to scientists to pursue research is of interest only to themselves; it does not allow for ‘mission based science’ such as Kennedy’s famous declaration of intent ‘We will put a man on the moon.’
Over the past few months I have been holding a series of seminars and roundtables on different aspects of science policy as part of developing Labour’s policy framework. Some criticisms of the Haldane principle have been raised. But the consensus view was that this Government was committed to it. The Science Minister Willets has said: “The Haldane principle is an important cornerstone for the protection of the scientific independence and excellence. We all benefit from its application in the UK.”
It seems Osborne is not so sure. If the government has decided that the Haldane principle is not appropriate for these austere economic times, should it not at least say so? Then the science and technology community can respond openly. But as with the recently revealed additional cuts to departmental science budgets, it seems that whilst proclaiming their support for science and technology from the rooftops a lot of damage is being done by the back door.