Published online 20 October 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.550

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UK science saved from deepest cuts

Research councils are spared but other government funding is under threat.

George OsborneGeorge Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, did not cut science as deeply as some other areas.David Wimsett /Photoshot

Core science funding has largely been spared budget cuts in the UK government's spending review. But capital funding, local agencies and some government departments have been left unprotected.

In total, £4.6 billion (US$7.3 billion) has been promised protection, leaving science advocates in a celebratory mood. At a briefing at London's Science Media Centre, science minister David Willetts was greeted with bouquet of white roses — sent by William Cullerne Bown, founder of the science policy newsletter Research Fortnight. "I'm genuinely relieved," Bown says, in explanation of the gift.

The spending review seeks to slash government spending and the United Kingdom's deficit, which stands at £109 billion. In putting the plan into action, the government predicts that it will cut nearly half a million public-sector jobs and slash funding for many government departments. The budget will "confront the bills from a decade of debt", George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, told parliament in a speech today.

Many departmental budgets are being slashed by 19% or more, but the £4.6-billion core science budget will remain flat over the period covered by the spending review. Moreover, the budget will be ring-fenced, meaning that it cannot be raided for other government needs. The core funding includes some £2.75 billion for the research councils and another £1.6 billion in "quality related" research from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). "We have a fantastic deal for the scientific community," said Willetts at the media centre press briefing.

Once projected inflation is factored in, the promise of flat funding for science over the four-year budget period is equivalent to around a 10% cut. All the same, the settlement is seen as a victory for scientists, who feared that deeper cuts would leave research councils unable to issue new calls for grants.

Missing billions

But the new spending document does leave more than £2 billion in research funding unprotected. That includes roughly £450 million in capital expenditures at the research councils — money that typically goes towards facilities, and subscriptions to organizations such as the European Space Agency. Willetts says that the capital budget will face constraints but added that it was too early to provide details.

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Some government departments will also face cuts under the plan. Money at the Department of Health will be protected, but the roughly £650 million spent per year by the Ministry of Defence on basic research will probably face a "modest" reduction, according to Willetts. Smaller sums spent by departments including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Department for Transport are also vulnerable.

Finally, the fate of over £400 million spent each year on science by Regional Development Agencies, local groups that have often backed research parks near universities, has been left up in the air. The development agencies will be dissolved after the spending review, and their research efforts will be transferred to the Technology Strategy Board, a national body that is intended to foster innovation. But in a hearing at the House of Lords last week, Willetts warned that "there will be a reduction in public funding" when the cash is moved.

Despite the uncertainties, even sceptical science advocates seemed momentarily disarmed by the budget's positive outcome. "I'm trying to be a grumpy pants," says Imran Khan, director of the advocacy group Campaign for Science & Engineering in the UK. However, he admits, the budget is "a very positive step". 

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