(Press release, 11 March 2013)

For immediate release

The grassroots, volunteer-run group Science is Vital, with support from six Nobel laureates and many other leading UK scientists, today published in the Daily Telegraph a letter urging the Government to commit to long-term funding of science and engineering. This commitment should be a central feature in an overall strategy to boost growth and enable the UK to meet the social and technological challenges of the 21st Century.

In the lead-up to the 2010 Spending Review, Science is Vital garnered widespread publicity by mobilising scientists and supporters of science across the country in a bid to protect science funding. Compared with the draconian cuts for most government departments, the outcome was relatively favourable for science. The core budget was ring-fenced and held fixed in cash terms. But the budget for capital was subsequently cut deeply, and research budgets for individual departments were not protected.

The letter published today is signed by 50 of Britain’s best-known and most distinguished scientists, including Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Brian Cox and Paul Nurse. It calls for the Government to support science funding and set a clear target to increase total public expenditure on R&D from its current level of ~0.6% of GDP to at least 0.8%, the average spend across the G8 nations. For example, the US and French governments spend 0.9% of GDP on R&D.

The Government is preparing to announce the framework for its budgetary plans for 2015-16 and beyond, taking us up to and past the next general election. Science is Vital is concerned that the cash freeze imposed on the core research budget in 2010 might be prolonged. While the scientific community appreciated this relatively generous settlement at a time of austerity, the effects of inflation and the deep cuts in scientific capital expenditure and the science spend of other Government departments has placed the overall UK budget on a downward trajectory.

The Government has injected significant additional funds targeted to specific areas since 2010. But the erosion of the overall UK science base is jeopardizing our future competitiveness, while our major economic competitors – France, Germany, South Korea and China among them – are boosting their spending on research.
        
From public pronouncements it is clear that the Coalition government understands the importance of public funding of science as a key part of the complex ecosystem of education, discovery and innovation that is so crucial to growth in knowledge-based economies. But that understanding needs to be translated into sustained investment, both to maintain the world-leading quality of UK research and to give industry confidence in the durability of our aspiration to be a strong, high-tech economy. Unfortunately, the present policy is effectively one of managed decline: it is vital that this trend be reversed.

Science is Vital is now launching a campaign to urge the Government not only to protect, but to increase R&D spending, so as to underpin future recovery.

Science is Vital founder and chair Dr Jennifer Rohn, Principal Research Associate at University College London, said, “The cash freeze in 2010, with its significant erosion of real-term funding, is already affecting the ability of UK scientists to do the great work that we need to fuel innovation and get the economy back on its feet. It’s crucial that we don’t end up with another cash freeze in the next budget decision – British science, already struggling, could reach a point of no return.”

Vice-Chair Professor Stephen Curry of Imperial College said, “Economic pressures remain intense and the research community has to be sensitive to that but it is still vital that the UK commits to reversing the decline in its R&D budget. This change of direction is needed to maintain the quality of UK science and is a crucial part of integrated policies on industry and education needed to connect research to economic activity.”

Professor Colin Blakemore, a former Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, said: “Everyone recognizes that economic recovery depends on science and innovation. We rightly pride ourselves on the quality and efficiency of UK research, but we can’t continue to compete if public funding is cut further. In the past 30 years the UK has fallen from top position in R&D funding to below the average for G8 and OECD nations. Now is the time for bold action from Government to reverse that decline.”

The campaign expects to be able to gather further support to strengthen the message sent out in 2010: science is vital for the economic health of the UK, enabling the country to meet the technological and social challenges it will face in the coming years. Science is Vital believes that this can only be secured by a clear Government commitment to long-term support, and welcomes wider public debate on this issue.

Notes to editors

  1. Science is Vital is a volunteer-run nonpartisan organisation with the aim of harnessing the views of the scientific community to promote the value of science and the interests of scientists to policy makers.
  2. Originally set up in September 2010 after a call to action from Dr Jennifer Rohn on her blog at http://occamstypewriter.org/mindthegap/, the group’s petition attracted over 35,000 signatures by the time of the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October 2010. The campaign to protect science spending culminated in a lobby of Parliament and a demonstration by several thousand researchers and their families outside the Treasury in the run up to the spending review announcement.
  3. For more information see http://scienceisvital.org.uk/ or contact Science is Vital Chair, Dr Jennifer Rohn, at jenny@scienceisvital.org.uk / +44 7984 217748
  4. Japan’s R&D spend taken from http://www.stat.go.jp/english/info/news/1936.htm. Figure quoted includes higher education
  5. European R&D figures available from http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/R_%26_D_expenditure

See accompanying article.

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