BBC: Vince signals science funding cuts

The BBC reports:

Business Secretary Vince Cable is expected to signal a squeeze on public funding for scientific research. He will urge universities to do “more for less” and say taxpayers should only back research that has a commercial use or was academically outstanding.

Mr Cable’s London audience will be told the government “values” UK science and research and spends £4.3bn a year. Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, said cutting science funding would be a false economy. Mr Cable’s speech comes ahead of next month’s Comprehensive Spending Review, which is likely to squeeze resources.

Well, these are the realities of the cuts — and exactly the kind of cuts that would be necessary whichever party found itself in power right now. Polls indicate the public accepts the Coalition’s arguments for immediate measures to cut the deficit, but so far this has been in the abstract. We can be sure that Lord Rees’s pleas are repeated by all groups who feel passionately their interest area should be ring-fenced, and that cuts in their area are a ‘false economy’. The Comprehensive Spending Review will mark the moment when the Coalition has to move beyond the ‘in principle’ arguments for cuts, and start defending the ‘in practise’ reality.

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29 Comments

  • Ben Johnson 8th Sep '10 - 10:19am

    Science should not be protected just because it is one of our greatest outputs as a nation. It should be protected because it is ultimately a revenue generator for the country.

    The £4.3 bn a year spent on scientific research produces dividends whenever British discoveries are patented, lead to new start up companies or the development of new drugs and treatments.

    In addition, a decrease in science funding will ultimately result in our universities reducing their research output, the fall down the international league tables, we attract less international students and universities lose a large portion of their income.

  • George W Potter 8th Sep '10 - 10:27am

    It’s moronic to cut science funding. Research generates wealth. Just look at the space technology sector. Fifty years ago it was just a gleam in researchers’ eyes and now it employs 70,000 people, contributes 6 billion pounds to GDP and us growing at a rate of 5% a year. Science research is ridiculously cheap compared to other means of wealth creation and to cut funding now would likely set back progress by years. Don’t forget, we’ve been underfunding science for years, there aren’t any excesses to cut.

  • Vicky Cleaton 8th Sep '10 - 10:35am

    I think the key phrase to need to know more about in all that, is what is meant by “academically outstanding” and exactly who gets to make that judgement. Not some bureaucrat with a spreadsheet full of little check boxes I hope 🙁
    I have always seen well funded and excellent education and science as being part of the bedrock of what being a libdem is all about.

  • Research might be one of those ‘hidden’ areas that tells us quite a lot about the Coalition, the Lib Dem influence and Vince’s effectiveness and influence as a minister. The Conservative track record on research funding is relatively poor. Whilst it may have to be cut it is how it is cut that it is important. The extent to which key elements are retained and the ability to bounce back when more funds are available are important. Too many cuts to date seem to have been rushed and ill thought out. The Osborne- Laws first round cuts were high on political bravado but low on intelligent planning and consideration of effect. The public may be tolerant at the moment but this depends on cuts being properly planned and implemented with an understanding of the consequences. Research is an area where this is particularly true. Rash decisions now will have long term knock on effects. Because it has little direct short term impact on the public it is an easy cut to make. I suspect Julian Huppert and one or two others in ‘university seats’ might find themselves having words with Vince.

  • The Coalition really needs to stop parroting this ‘more for less’ meme. Basically there’s going to be less money. That’s it.

  • Awfully short sighted choice there, Vince….

  • Anthony Aloysius St 8th Sep '10 - 11:11am

    “Well, these are the realities of the cuts — and exactly the kind of cuts that would be necessary whichever party found itself in power right now.”

    It’s getting boring reading this rubbish over and over again.

    Of course there are always choices – about how fast and how much to reduce the deficit, about how much of that reduction should come from cutting spending and how much from increasing taxation, and about which spending should be cut.

    For heaven’s sake, only a couple of years ago Clegg was promising us “big, permanent tax cuts” while pledging no real reductions in public services! Sheer bloody deception.

  • The research councils are already very picky about what research to back… I agree that business should be encouraged to invest more in university R&D but this should be something the government puts pressure on them to do. Researchers shouldn’t have to spend still more of their time writing begging letters. Banks, consultancies, think tanks and private research firms gain a huge amount from recruiting graduates with PhD training. They should be encouraged to fund more scholarships and pay back into the system that provided the training for their staff.

    The UK already lags behind Europe and America in funding research and development. For all the fuss there was about a graduate tax making graduates move abroad to pursue their careers, what about the effect of not providing any research positions? Our science graduates will be filling in their US visa application as soon as they finish.

  • Andrew Wimble 8th Sep '10 - 11:48am

    Restricting science to areas of commercial use and theoretical excellence is incredibly dangerous. Tests like this may serve in the short term to focus effort in areas that have a short term perceived benifit, but they will also mean that many areas of British science will contract and wither, so that we may end up finding outselves with very little expertise in whatever turns out to be the next big thing. It is simply not possible to reliably predict which areas of theoretical research will end up leading to important breakthroughs in the future.

    In an ideal world I would like to see science spending protected and in fact I believe that such protection is justified because of the positive effects science have on all areas of the economy. If cuts do have to be made however then they need to be ballanced. It is better to have a reduced but broad science base than something that is overly focuses on the areas of current interest quite possibly at the expense of the areas of interest in the future

  • Hove Howard 8th Sep '10 - 12:36pm

    There is hot competition, but this is perhaps the most ill-conceived and downright depressing announcement from the coalition thus far.

  • More worth reading the full speech … it doesn’t sound as bad as it was portrayed in the Guardian actually. And there are several sensible ideas in there as well as the mention of cuts. All the same, reform and an *increase* in science spending is what we need really …

    http://nds.coi.gov.uk/content/Detail.aspx?ReleaseID=415357&NewsAreaID=2

  • Anthony Aloysius St 8th Sep '10 - 2:17pm

    “My preference is to ration research funding by excellence and back research teams of international quality – and screen out mediocrity – regardless of where they are and what they do.”

    It really is such drivel. As if the government were at present funding “mediocre” research! On the contrary, anyone with a passing acquaintance with the field knows that there’s not enough government money available to fund even the most highly rated applications for support.

  • Andrew Suffield 8th Sep '10 - 7:47pm

    I think the key phrase to need to know more about in all that, is what is meant by “academically outstanding” and exactly who gets to make that judgement. Not some bureaucrat with a spreadsheet full of little check boxes I hope

    Ignoring the fact that the report of Cable “announcing” cuts is pure fiction, it will just mean passing that instruction on to the research councils. They’re the same people who always make these decisions.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 8th Sep '10 - 8:11pm

    “… it will just mean passing that instruction on to the research councils”

    What instruction? “Please fund good-quality research in preference to mediocre research”? What the hell does anyone think they are doing at the moment? The whole thing is just nonsensical.

  • The Royal Academy of Engineering has criticised the amount of money the UK spends on CERN, arguing that it offers poor value for money.

    Even at our best university (mine on this measure!), only 1 in 3 researchers is “world-leading”. At a good univ (Nottingham, Leeds), it is about 1 in 6. It seems at least plausible that with £5bn odd of our money at stake we should ask whether it is being given to people capable of using it effectively enough to warrant being given it. How much is going to the world-class researchers? Are we just duplicating basic science done elsewhere?

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Sep '10 - 7:50am

    What instruction? “Please fund good-quality research in preference to mediocre research”?

    I imagine it will look something like “budgets are being cut 10% across the board, keep doing what you’re doing.

    The whole thing is just nonsensical.

    Indeed. Let’s review what happens:

    – Interviewer asks Cable a stupid question involving made-up numbers.

    – Cable says no, that’s wrong, cuts will be much smaller and we’ll keep funding research the same way we always have.

    – Media frenzy over a complete non-event

  • It does seem pretty dumb to assume that all worthy scientific research has a ‘commercial application’. This strikes me as something that most people are going to realize as a fallacy. Lots of scientific research doesn’t have a direct commercial application, but is invaluable nevertheless. Most of the climate change research, for example…

    This is what you get when you hire James Dyson as an advisor, though. Sorry, mate; you’re good at inventing the odd new product, but crap at forming public policy.

  • Is this a case of ‘knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing’? I thought that a Tory trait, not ours, can someone please say this has been misreported and he didn’t say this.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 9th Sep '10 - 3:53pm

    “Go and read the speech http://tinyurl.com/2vd7a4b which is Vince at his best, in touch with his subject and open in his thinking.”

    Well, if this is Cable at his best, God help us!

    It’s clear from the comments he made on the Today programme that he lacks even the most basic understanding of how the quality of university research is assessed, or how the research councils allocate research funding.

    How can anyone comment sensibly on a subject without understanding the basics?

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