Basic researchers protest UK budget

Reallocations threaten undirected fundamental research.

Alistair Darling announced the UK budget on 22 April. Credit: S. DAWSON/BLOOMBERG NEWS/LANDOV/PA PHOTOS

Britain's government has unveiled an economic stimulus package designed to harness what it calls a "world-class science base" — at the same time as it cuts funds for undirected basic research.

In a speech to parliament on 22 April, Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, unveiled the 2009 budget. It includes £1.4 billion (US$2.1 billion) in new cash for low-carbon business and technology.

Some scientists were underwhelmed by the plan, which redirects £106 million from the nation's seven research councils, which fund most of Britain's basic research, towards "key areas of economic potential". These areas make up roughly 15% of the councils' £3-billion annual budget and are defined by five cross-cutting programmes with titles such as "living with environmental change" and "digital economy" (see Nature 453, 1150–1151; 2008).

“The value of our universities lies in their transformative discoveries. ”

Chloë Somers, a spokeswoman for the councils, says that most of the £106 million will come from reprioritizing the 'blue-skies' funding that allows researchers to pursue any topic they choose. Despite the change in focus, Somers argues, the councils will still fund fundamental science: "This has nothing to do with cutting basic-research funding."

But others see it as an erosion of the councils' independence. The decision is part of a worrying trend to force basic research to prove its economic worth, says Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK, a London-based group that advocates for science funding. If it continues, it could undermine the real worth of basic science in Britain, adds Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society. "The value of our universities lies in the transformative discoveries that emerge unpredictably and unplanned," he says. "The research councils should not stifle this potential."

Environmentalists, meanwhile, were cheered by the government's green stimulus package, which includes £1 billion to support renewable energy and jobs in green businesses. The development of offshore wind farms is expected to receive £525 million over the next two years. The budget also includes a new £750-million strategic investment fund for emerging technologies and high-tech industry and sets aside £405 million to support low-carbon energy and advanced green manufacturing. Biotechnology will also receive some of the money.

Darling told parliament that together, the incentives will "harness commercially our world-class science base".

That may be true, but the base is being ignored, Dusic argues. The United States is using stimulus money to make mammoth investments in basic science, he says, so "the United Kingdom cannot afford to fall behind".

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Brumfiel, G., Gilbert, N. Basic researchers protest UK budget. Nature 458, 1085 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/4581084b

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