Green technologies win £1.4 billion in UK budget

Carbon reduction sees a stimulus — but blue-skies research may be at risk.

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling. Credit: Associated Press

The UK government today announced £1.4 billion (US$2 billion) in new cash for low-carbon businesses and technologies, as part of the nation's 2009–10 Budget to stimulate economic recovery. But some scientists have expressed concern that, amid moves to support business priorities, basic research may be being sidelined.

Presenting the Budget to the House of Commons, Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling said science-led sectors such as low carbon, advanced manufacturing and communications are the "industries of the future", and that the United Kingdom would pull itself out of recession by supporting growth in these areas.

"That is why it has been so important that we have increased investment in Britain's science base by 88% in real terms over the last ten years," he said.

The green stimulus package includes £1 billion to help combat climate change by supporting renewable energy and jobs in green businesses. The development of offshore wind farms will receive £525 million over the next two years, subject to consultation.

The package also includes £405 million for direct, specific support for low-carbon energy and advanced green-manufacturing sectors. Part of this funding will come from a new £750-million strategic investment fund for emerging technologies and high-tech sectors, such as biotechnology. The Technology Strategy Board — a public body that funds and promotes industry-led technology research and development — will receive £50 million from the fund.

A spokesperson for the London-based Bioindustry Association, which promotes UK biotechnology, welcomed the new strategic investment fund, saying it could "make a significant contribution to supporting and building a successful and sustainable bioscience sector in the UK".

Darling said the new fund "will encourage exports, support inward investment, promote research and development and harness commercially our world-class science base". The government will also consider making changes in the tax system that will encourage UK industry to bolster its domestic research and development activities.

Renewable and other energy projects in the United Kingdom can expect to receive up to £4 billion in new money from the European Investment Bank, through direct lending to energy projects and intermediated lending to banks, Darling added.

He also announced the government's aim to finance at least two, and up to four, demonstration projects for carbon capture and storage (CCS), together with £90 million for feasibility studies. Jeff Chapman, chief executive of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, says that this amount was already expected as part of government-funded studies for an existing CCS pilot project. But he adds he is "very happy indeed" that the government has committed to supporting up to four pilot projects.

First steps

Darling also presented the world's first-ever budget on greenhouse-gas emissions, which commits Britain to a cut in carbon emissions by 34% by 2020 from 1990 levels. The milestone is an important move towards meeting the government's stated goal of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050.

Darling described the move as "a landmark step, which points the way to the vital decisions which must be made at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit later this year".

Nicholas Stern, who led a review of the economics of climate change for the UK government in 2006, said, "The government has recognized the importance of increasing research and development on technologies for capturing and storing the carbon dioxide that is produced by power stations using coal, gas and oil as fuel."

Stern, who is now chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, welcomed the Budget but added that the initiatives "must be the initial step along the path towards a major structural shift in policy which we trust will follow over the coming decade".

Other green experts were also positive. Tom Delay, chief executive of the Carbon Trust, an independent company set up by the government to combat climate change and reduce carbon emissions, says "This budget is good news for carbon reduction."

Research-council concerns

Meanwhile, the Budget calls for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) to find £400-million-worth of additional "efficiency" savings in 2010–11. In addition, the research councils, which allocate government funding for science, will have to re-invest £106 million of their budget to support key areas of research with economic potential. The changes to the research councils' budget have "nothing to do with cutting basic research," says Chloë Somers, a spokesperson for the councils. "Our budget has remained the same."

But others warn the savings could come at the expense of blue-skies research. "I am concerned that the balance within research councils has already shifted too much towards 'preferred areas'," says Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society, Britain's national academy of science. Nick Dusic, director of the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering, agrees. "The Chancellor has undermined the independence of the research councils," he says.

Commenting on the cuts to the DIUS budget, Paul Wellings, chair-elect of the 1994 Group of small research-intensive universities, says, "If this cut leads to a reduction in the unit of resource for teaching or research it will be destabilizing for the sector and damaging to the country's chances of economic recovery."

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Gilbert, N., Brumfiel, G. Green technologies win £1.4 billion in UK budget. Nature (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2009.392

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