Despite calling science a “personal priority”, George Osborne’s summer budget this June saw it barely mentioned. However, having reviewed public finances and received spending projections from all government departments, 25 November saw the release of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and this time around Osborne’s plan for science in this country was spelt out. Despite warnings leaking from Whitehall that the best the scientific community could hope for was five more years of a flat-cash settlement to the science budget (further eroding the sector’s value due to inflation), the Chancellor surprised by promising real-terms protection to the £4.7 bn annual resource budget. He also stuck with the previously-announced £6.9 bn capital expenditure over the next five years. Innovate UK keeps a flat-cash guarantee to its £165 m funding, though some grants are being converted to loans, the extent of which is unclear. There is some concern that, with the low rate of inflation, the actual degree of increase to science funding will be lower than many hoped. This also does not change the UK’s position as the lowest investor in scientific research among the G8 nations.
Some specific research goals were mentioned with funding promised to work towards them, such as the 100,000 Genomes project and combatting antimicrobial resistance, while the research landscape in general will be reshaped in the image set out by Sir Paul Nurse in his review of the Research Councils. This will involve the creation of an overarching body called Research UK which sits above the Research Councils and facilitates better efficiency and governmental engagement. Concerns have been raised about the watering-down of the Haldane Principle due to this new structure, which contains a ministerial oversight committee. However, it is hoped that advice will flow both ways and lead to a government far better informed around scientific trends and developments.
The Chancellor gave broad outlines in his speech, and while the Spending Review document provides some more detail there are aspects where uncertainty remains over the fine print. The science budget now includes £1.5 bn over five years going to the Global Challenges Fund, which was previously administered by the Department for International Development. The restrictions on allocation of this funding are not known. Further, while the science budget was protected by a ring-fence through the last parliament, changes may have brought other costs into this budget making it need to stretch further. Answers to these points of uncertainty will come along in due course, with many organisations in the science policy sector poring over announcements concerning the implementation of the Spending Review.