At a time when we are seeing some of the biggest government cuts in a generation it may seem to belittle the suffering people are facing to complain about the effect of the spending review on the science budget. As the government is trying to reduce our debt to income ratio, they have cut the deficit but we also need to create long-term sustainable economic growth. For this to happen investment in science and innovation is key. Our spending on research and development is vital to drive forward economic growth and reverse the current stagnation we see in our economy.
In 2010 the science budget was fixed in cash terms at £4.6bn, but the capital budget was drastically cut. Since then we have thankfully seen a reversal in those capital cuts, although we are still not at the pre-2010 level. However the ring-fencing in cash terms in 2010 has in reality nibbled away at our science budget and damaged our international competitiveness to attract the best scientists to the UK.
That is why in the spending review it was good to hear the role of science and innovation being talked up by both George Osborne and Vince Cable, especially in establishing the role R&D will play in rebuilding our economy. The spending review saw a continued commitment from the Chancellor to freeze the science budget, but this is extremely worrying. There has already been a substantial loss since 2010 and with this new commitment for 2015/16 there is expected to be a £276m fall in the science budget, roughly 6% of the current budget.
That said there are some positives to come from this, the boost in the capital budget from £0.6bn to £1.1bn is welcome and does give some confidence for the future with the budget being maintained in line with inflation in 2016/17. We also see an increase in the budget for the Technology Strategy Board which is helping to support innovation as well as £100m being made available to the Small Business Research Initiative to help SMEs invest in R&D. It was also promising to see postgraduate funding coming to the forefront, especially to help students from disadvantages background through a fund for HEFCE.
Overall this looks like positive news, that is until you start to look at the international stage where our science and innovation funding is woefully short and sees us 27th in the league tables of science spend as a percentage of GDP. In the UK we spend around 1.7% of our GDP on R&D and 0.57% on publicly funded R&D. Comparing this to other countries, South Korea is increasing its expenditure to 5%, China is at 2%. In the US they spend 1.2% on publicly funded R&D while in Singapore it is 1%.
The UK is not only lagging behind, but our direction of travel is also the opposite of most other countries. Whereas our competitors are showing increased investment in real-terms the UK is falling rapidly. And this is the worry. How can we hope to stay internationally competitive and to drive new, creative innovation leading to economic growth when we are lagging so far behind in our R&D investment?
Credit should be given to the Chancellor, Vince Cable and David Willets for the positive messages they are giving out in terms of scientific investments and its links to long term economic growth. But we now need to step up a gear, to set out a commitment for long term investment in science and innovation and reverse the downward trend.
* Richard Davis is a prospective Member of the European Parliament for London. His website is here.