Published online 12 May 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.239
Updated online: 13 May 2010

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UK science braces for impact

Britain's new government has big changes in store.

Dave and NickBritish Prime Minister David Cameron (Conservative) and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) — a match made in heaven, or hell?Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

As the United Kingdom gets used to its first coalition government since 1945, it is already clear that some significant changes to the country's scientific enterprise are in the works.

After the country's 6 May general election left no political party with an overall majority, a frantic round of horse-trading between the three major parties has led to an unprecedented coalition of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, ousting the incumbent Labour government from power.

The fusion of the two parties promises to be a fascinating political experiment — not least because of the yawning gulf between the right-wing Conservatives and the left-leaning Liberal Democrats on some key policies (see 'High stakes for science in UK election'). The Conservatives take a sceptical approach to Europe and want to build more nuclear-power stations, for example — a stark contrast to the Liberal Democrats, who campaigned against nuclear power and for a European-led global climate treaty.

Ditching the debt

But there are now clear areas of agreement between the two parties that will affect science. First and foremost are budget cuts. The opening lines of the coalition agreement between the parties calls for a "significantly accelerated" reduction of Britain's spending deficit. Only the National Health Service is explicitly protected, so it's a fair bet that universities and research councils will face a tough slog.

In the near term, the new government has pledged to reduce spending by £6 billion (US$9 billion) in the 2010–11 financial year, with details to be laid out in an emergency budget within the next 50 days. That represents a relatively modest amount compared with the annual UK deficit of roughly £160 billion, so cuts shouldn't be too hard to make without greatly interfering with research budgets.

But there are likely to be serious cuts in the longer term. Many of these will probably be detailed in a spending review that is currently scheduled for the autumn. Neither the Liberal Democrats nor the Conservatives have pledged to maintain research funding, so they have little to lose by cutting the budget. The Conservatives, however, committed to giving "a stable investment climate" for research, which most observers believe means that they will produce a clear, forward-looking plan for slimming down the budget.

A survey of 40 universities published by the Financial Times yesterday indicated that many were already mulling serious cuts to their science and engineering departments, which typically cost more to run than arts or humanities departments.

Future funding

The second key change is the apparent sidelining of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a complicated formula to distribute millions in research funding throughout the university network that was due to be implemented in 2014. Many researchers have criticized the planned REF for its increased emphasis on scientists having to prove the economic and societal benefits of their work. During the campaign, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats said that they would suspend the REF, pending a review.

Another key point of agreement between the parties is the need to reform England's libel laws, which have generated problems for scientists' freedom of expression (see Science writer's victory hailed by UK libel reformers). Both parties pledged to review libel laws in the run-up to the election and their agreement states that libel law reform will indeed be on the agenda in the coming months.

The agreement also shows several areas where the parties have compromised. For example, the Conservatives have won out on plans to renew the Trident nuclear-weapons programme, although an extensive defence review is planned. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, seem to have succeeded in winning support for alternative-energy schemes, including marine energy and energy generation from waste.

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But differences will remain. Strikingly, the Liberal Democrats will continue to oppose nuclear power, while allowing the Conservative wing of the government to bring forward plans for new plants. Given the strong support for nuclear power from the now opposition Labour party, it may be that the plants will be built in spite of misgivings by the Liberal Democrats.

And who will get the post of science minister? The obvious name is the Conservative Adam Afriyie, Member of Parliament (MP) for Windsor, who worked the science brief throughout the election campaign. Afriyie might have been a certainty for the job if the Conservatives had won outright, but because the party must share cabinet positions with the Liberal Democrats, he might lose out to a more senior member from either of the coalition parties. As for a potential Liberal Democrat candidate for science minister, the name being bandied about today by insiders is Sarah Teather, MP for Brent Central and a former policy adviser at the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's national academy of science. The new science minister is expected to be named by the end of this week. 

Updated:

David Willetts (link: http://www.davidwilletts.co.uk/), the Conservative MP for Havant, has been appointed Minister of State for Universities and Science at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Willetts served as shadow minister for Universities and Skills in the previous parliament.

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