Britain's research ranks second only to the United States in its share of citations in the biomedical and environmental sciences. In the past decade, support from successive Labour governments saw spending on university research roughly double. But the period of boom is now over. Over the next few weeks, the new Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government will initiate radical steps to cut the national deficit, which last year was 11.1% of GDP — significantly greater than most other leading scientific nations. Some damage to science is inevitable, but the picture is not unremittingly bleak.

Advocacy for science within the current government seems dangerously weak by Labour-government standards, and is undetectable in the key department, the Treasury. But it is far from negligible. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills — which includes the university base in its remit — has as its cabinet minister the Liberal Democrat Vince Cable, whose first degree was in natural sciences and economics at the University of Cambridge. Cable has a wealth of experience in the world of business and finance, has several major laboratories in his constituency and has a son who, he says, “works in a particularly recondite area of quantum physics and is a one-man lobbying industry for scientific research”. Cable is powerfully articulate, and in recent speeches has emphasized the need for Britain to deploy science as an engine of economic growth.

Under Cable is universities and science minister David Willetts, a Conservative intellectual who has written much about economic and social policy. Last week, in his first major speech about science, Willetts made clear his commitment to the broadest consideration of the concept of 'impact' as a key criterion for government support (see Encouragingly, he announced the delay by one year of the new university assessment exercise, the Research Excellence Framework, in order to develop better measures of impact. But he reminded his listeners that, in the imminent review of spending, a crucial goal will be to ensure that the science base is structured in a way that maximizes those impacts. Significantly, he said that economic impact would be a primary consideration.

A previous Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was much influenced in the middle of her tenure by arguments about the economic returns on investment in basic research. Similarly, Willetts spoke approvingly of research showing that investment in research councils produces higher returns than initiatives such as research-and-development tax credits for the private sector (J. Haskel and G. Wallis CEPR Discussion Paper 7725; 2010, see

A key economic return lies in doctoral graduates who end up in successful careers outside research. A full analysis has yet to be done, but several recent reports and the statistics on longer-term destinations for young researchers indicate that their contribution to the broader economy is substantial. This is particularly the case for the mathematical sciences, which by comparison with the life sciences suffered from a lack of attention under the previous government.

In short, Britain's research community, about to face the toughest budgetary reckoning for many years, has more support from its ministers than might have been expected before the election. Only time will reveal the ministers' preferences and effectiveness. Nevertheless, now and over the next few years, it will be critical to ensure that the learned societies and other key representatives of the research community present hard evidence rather than soft assertions about the contribution of science to national well being, and particularly the economy — and that the government supports the research needed to develop that evidence.