LibLink: Evan Harris – Vince Cable’s science spending cuts: how harsh will they be?

This morning’s news that Vince Cable will announce in a speech today how the cuts to his Business, Innovation and Skills department will impact on science attracted a vigorous reaction from commenters on the Voice today.

Former Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris — whose Political Science blog for the Guardian has quickly established itself as essential reading — has contributed his throughts to the debate there. Evan, as Lib Dems will know well, is firmly on the social liberal ‘wing’ of the party (a staunch defender, for example, of higher taxes for the wealthiest), and has great credibility as an advocate of evidence-based policy. Here’s an excerpt from his posting today:

The figures that we do know (subject to assumptions such as an announced cut in welfare spending of £11bn) are that to tackle the structural deficit in this parliament, there would need to be average cuts of 14% in government departments over five years. The protection of the NHS against any cuts means other departments like the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) need to make savings of 25%. This in itself will rile LibDems in government like Cable and Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander, who were opposed to ring-fencing the NHS in this way because of the gearing effect on other government programmes.

Any relative protection given to defence and education (say, restricting cuts to 10%) would require cuts in departments such as BIS of 33%.

The coalition government is not responsible for the need to make cuts, and a Labour government – whatever the leadership candidates now say – would have had to deal with the deficit on a broadly similar scale, perhaps with a 70/30% split between spending cuts and tax rises compared with the 77/23% split of the coalition (itself different from the 80/20 pure Tory position). The cuts may also have been dragged out over a longer period. …

The government is however responsible for deciding where those cuts fall the hardest and the success of the efforts of Cable and his deputy David Willetts should be judged on whether he is seen to seek to present the best arguments to the Treasury for maintaining science investment, and – given the scale of BIS cuts that follow – whether there is a relative protection for science within his department.

The next question is exactly how spending cuts will be implemented and what the government should, can and will do to influence that, which Cable dealt with in his speech today and which will benefit from close reading.

You can read Evan’s post in full here, and you can subscribe to the webfeed of the Political Science blog here.

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17 Comments

  • The answer to the problem seems to be simple, then. Stop ring fencing any areas of the budget because of the distorting effect it has on the scale of cuts made in other departments.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 8th Sep '10 - 8:42pm

    Evan Harris has now posted a critical analysis of Cable’s speech:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/political-science/2010/sep/08/science-spending-vince-cable

    Although it’s critical, I think it’s considerably kinder than the speech deserved. In particular, the wilful misuse of statistics – to convey the totally false impression that nearly half of government-funded research is somehow “mediocre” – is quite shameful. One objection is noted in the comments on Harris’s earlier blog – much of this research was actually assessed as “recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.”

    But more seriously, the statistic quoted by Cable doesn’t even related to government-funded research in the first place – but to university research in general, much of which is funded from other sources. As Harris points out, as far as research council responses to applications for funding are concerned, so far from “mediocre” work being supported, “low success rates mean that many excellent or outstanding proposals are rejected anyway.”

  • 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? Well done Vince for having the guts to raise the issue.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 9th Sep '10 - 9:44am

    “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.”

    But of course, the bulk of the researchers at the LSE aren’t working in science or technology anyway – maybe only about 5%, depending on whether economists consider themselves scientists – yet another problem with Cable’s spurious statistic.

    Anyhow, the point you raise might be an argument for sacking or redeploying academic staff, but that doesn’t appear to be what Cable is suggesting.

    The question is how much (if any) of the poorer research activity is funded by the government. We can’t tell that from the RAE, because it doesn’t break down research according to the source of funding, but we do know that the research councils even now don’t have enough money to fund all the highest-rated applications for support.

    Of course, not all the research activity assessed will have been specifically funded by anyone, and common sense suggests that much of that falls into the lower-quality categories. I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a lot of the research funded by industry does as well, ironically.

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

    I see the Research Councils have taken the highly unusual step of issuing a statement correcting Cable’s “misleading” suggestion that 45% of research was not of an excellent standard:
    http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/news/100908

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Sep '10 - 10:07am

    Tim, have you considered that “world-leading research” may not be the most effective business-wide. That is, maybe a lot of small rather boring but patentable research projects that get written up in the lower grade journals will bring in more than some hugely expensive theoretical project that wins a Nobel Prize?

    I also think you should consider your words “capable of using it effectively”. Isn’t the point of scientific research that it is speculative, so we cannot predict in advance whether it will be worthwile or not? We need to be sure we are funding capability, not just those who happened to have hit it lucky in the past, or those who have the personal links that mean their friends who make these judgments deem them to be so. You are not letting on the extent to which the figures you quote are based on subjective opinion, which involves an awful lot of “you scratch mine and I’ll scratch yours”.

    The RAE has shown all the problems of target-driven funding, similar to the problems we have seen for example in target-driven education. It has led people to concentrate on what hits the targets rather than on what the targets are attempting to measure, and it has created perverse incentives in which other activities (i.e. university teaching) get neglected. In a similar way, the simple tests in school education which were just meant to give us a little objective data we could work with have ended up wrecking school education because of the overdue attention paid to them. As a university teacher dealing with the SATS generation, I find the students’ minds have been seriously damaged by the poor approach to real learning this has generated.

  • George Kendall writes: “We can’t increase taxes on the rich, because, as the IFS point out, we’re already at the point where increases in tax on them will result in a lower tax take.”

    What about delivering on the LibDems manifesto commitment for a serious onslaught on tax avoidance?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 9th Sep '10 - 5:59pm

    Do I detect the formation of a narrative to justify cuts in funding for scientific research?

    According to the BBC, David Willetts has accused universities of being too focused on research. Apparently he was shocked to discover that academic promotion is principally determined by research, rather than teaching (he’s been the Tory higher education spokesman for five years – I wonder what planet he’s been living on if he’s only just found that out):
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11241871

    So how does the story go? Academics in ivory towers, whiling away their time on mediocre research and neglecting their students. What a waste of taxpayers’ money!

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Sep '10 - 7:30pm

    Do I detect the formation of a narrative to justify cuts in funding for scientific research?

    The narrative is easy and it’s this: we have less money so we have to spend less.

    There’s no grand change in policy here, and no attack on research. It’s just that the amount of money available for research grants will be smaller by a modest amount for a few years. This should surprise nobody, as it’s what any government would have done.

    (The research councils will almost certainly make small reductions in the number of grants they give, and moderate reductions in the size of the grants. It’s effectively a pay cut for researchers. Nobody’s going to like it much, but that’s what happens when the economy sucks, and we’ll get through it)

  • Anthony Aloysius St 9th Sep '10 - 9:58pm

    “The research councils will almost certainly make small reductions in the number of grants they give, and moderate reductions in the size of the grants. It’s effectively a pay cut for researchers.”

    Sounds as though you know more than Vince Cable about what’s going to happen.

    Though it seems you don’t know that there are fixed pay scales for research associates in universities …

  • It’s effectively a pay cut for researchers. Nobody’s going to like it much, but that’s what happens when the economy sucks, and we’ll get through it)
    Fixed pay scales for reasearchers – who are paid comparitively little given their skill set (although more than average salary) – what it means is there will be fewer project grants, which means scientists will either leave science or work abroad and Britain’s Universities will suffer further. WIllets wants increased focus on quality teaching, which is not necessarily an unwelcome sentiment, but researchers aren’t teachers, and without research universities will struggle to attract the best students. Given that the UK already spends less than it’s research rivals this policy is effectively stating that Britain will no longer be a world leader in research. Perhaps there is an argument to be made that the country will benefit from a different focus, but this hasn’t been made. Meanwhile all those scientists who mistakenly believed the LIbDem pre-election announcements about standing up for science are feeling very very betrayed. They expected such idiocy from the Tories, but the Libs specifically targeted their vote with promises that are now shown to be lies. LibDems should be worried that in one day they managed to lose the support of almost the entire higher education sector.

  • Andrew Suffield 10th Sep '10 - 8:11am

    Fixed pay scales for reasearchers

    Those are paid by the universities. Different budget. This is about grant funding.

    Sounds as though you know more than Vince Cable about what’s going to happen.

    It’s not difficult to predict what research councils will do, they’re very… set in their ways.

    Meanwhile all those scientists who mistakenly believed the LIbDem pre-election announcements about standing up for science are feeling very very betrayed

    By a hysterical media report? I don’t think you’ve ever met a scientist.

  • By a hysterical media report? I don’t think you’ve ever met a scientist.?
    No, by the words that tumbled out of Cable’s mouth and the very obvious impression that he doesn’t have a clue. I am a scientist btw, and one that sees no future in the UK for the next few years and is benefiting from the science spending of the UK’s neighbours.

    Those are paid by the universities. Different budget. This is about grant funding.

    No, for the most part they are paid for by research council and charity grants – the universities are the middle men. All of my work, PhD and postdoc, has been funded by research councils or other funding bodies independent of the university or institute I worked in.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 10th Sep '10 - 8:48am

    “Those [researchers] are paid by the universities. Different budget. This is about grant funding.”

    For heaven’s sake – you were the one who posted the rubbish about it being a pay cut for researchers in the first place!

    But what on earth do you suppose research grants are spent on? Mainly on paying research associates and fellows on fixed-term contracts (and fixed pay scales!) to actually do the research, of course.

    “I don’t think you’ve ever met a scientist.”

    Your arrogance is astonishing, considering you yourself self-evidently haven’t the slightest clue about how the system works. That being the case, is it too much to hope for that – just for once – we could be spared more of your inane comments?

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Sep '10 - 10:54am

    G

    WIllets wants increased focus on quality teaching, which is not necessarily an unwelcome sentiment, but researchers aren’t teachers, and without research universities will struggle to attract the best students.

    Yes, but the current set-up means the research is managed by people also employed to be teachers, and it is those people who are responsible for competing for and obtaining the grants. Because this is seen as the more prestigious aspect of their jobs, and one which brings in extra income whereas teaching income is fixed, all the pressures on university full-time academic staff are to put their efforts into this rather than into teaching. The research record is also the main contributing factor in universities’ position in the league tables, and students when choosing universities tend to make the position in the league tables the main factor in making their choice, putting effort into good quality teaching not only does not ring in money or prestige, it doesn’t even bring in good quality students.

    As a consequence, university managers right now are sacking, or bullying out, academics who put any but the minimal effort into teaching because this is held to be damaging because it is not improving the research record. No-one who is churning out the research papers EVER get sacked for sloppy teaching.

  • Matthew Huntbach – I agree with the observation that good researchers are not necessarily good teachers, and the lack of teaching ability can go uncorrected. I agree too that teaching ability is not a factor in ranking universities.

    However, it should be pointed out that young researchers, post grads and post docs, typically do much less teaching and much more research than more senior members of staff. It is these who will suffer under the budget cuts and are more mobile in terms of considering careers outside of the UK. If you lose these you lose the future research base.

    On the subject of teaching – the argument that there should be separate teaching and research funding streams is one with much merit – however I suspect it will cost more than the current situation to implement.

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