Researchers working in priority areas such as post-genomics and information technology had cause to celebrate last week as the British government published the fine print of its comprehensive spending plan for science.
But despite overall increases in funding of about 7% for each of the next three years, including spending on buildings and equipment, those working in less fashionable disciplines could be left out in the cold.
“The probability that your average project grant will be funded is not going to go up,” warns Peter Cotgreave, director of the lobby group Save British Science. Indeed, last week's announcement is the most obvious development in an emerging UK trend: the concentration of resources in big, collaborative programmes, rather than increasing the funding for individual grants.
“An inevitable consequence of the way these programmes will work is that more money will be concentrated into a smaller number of groups,” says David Clark, science and engineering director at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
The new money emerged from a strategic review of planned government spending for the three years beginning 2001. In July, the government announced the size of the overall increase to the science budget, plus an additional fund of £1 billion (US$1.4 billion) to update laboratory equipment and buildings — £225 million of which will be provided by the Wellcome Trust (see Nature 406, 335; 2000). But it was not clear how the increases for research would be spent.
This extra money totals £356 million over the three years. But £252 million is earmarked for cross-research-council projects in genomics, 'E-science' and what the government calls 'basic technology' (see figure ). The rest is divided between the research councils roughly in proportion to their current spending. After each council has funded its own priority projects, there will be little left: indeed, some councils will have to cut back on their existing activities (see below).
The main thrust of the genomics initiative will be to determine the function of genes that have been sequenced. George Radda, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, expects the focus to be on structural genomics and population-based studies. He says the comprehensive medical records gathered by the National Health Service make Britain an ideal place to study the links between genes, lifestyle and disease. The Medical Research Council plans to spend £20 million on the UK Population Biomedical Collection, a national database involving some 500,000 volunteers, in collaboration with the Department of Health and the Wellcome Trust.
The E-science initiative will focus on developing a distributed computing concept known as the Grid, and applying it to climate modelling, bioinformatics and handling the expected deluge of data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics in Geneva.
The basic technology component includes research in nanotechnology and robotics. Officials at the engineering research council expect particular emphasis to be given to photonics — computing and data transmission using photons instead of electrons — where Britain is an acknowledged world leader.
The architects of the government's science policy make no apologies for these earmarks. “We definitely do need things that are larger and more collaborative,” says Robert May, who was the government's chief science adviser until October, and this week takes over as president of the Royal Society.
Most researchers agree that such work is important, but some fear that the trend to attach strings to science spending may grow at the expense of basic, curiosity-driven research. “I wouldn't yet say this is a big problem, but there is a potential for a problem,” says Cotgreave. “We've got our eye on it.”