In a strong signal of support for science and research, BIS have announced that they plan to maintain the science ringfence at the £4.6 billion it was frozen at in 2010. They have also invested £1.1 billion in capital, making a total investment in to science and research of £5.8 billion. This £5.8 billion covers funding for the seven UK research councils - MRC see a slight cash terms increase - the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Academies, including for the first time funding for the Academy of Medical Sciences.
This ongoing commitment to science and research is very welcome given the huge pressures on central government spending and is a clear sign that Government understands the value of this sector and the importance of its role for the UK. This government has recognised the need to provide stability to the science base, making ongoing commitments to science and protecting the ringfence, but the next decade is in the hands of the next government. Science will clearly be an election issue.
Today's announcement gives us the big headline numbers for how BIS's 2015-16 science and research budget will be spent and some hints over how these will be broken down by the recipients. More detail will be coming out over the coming months.
MRC - MRC has been allocated £616.3 million to its total budget for 2015-16. This is a slight cash terms increase of 1% to their resource budget and 16% increase to their capital budget.
Academy of Medical Sciences - This is the first year that AMS has received a programme grant from BIS alongside the other UK National Academies. It will help fund their work to promote links between industry, charities, academia and the NHS, focused on making the UK the best place in the world for medical research and its translation into health and wealth benefits. Read their response.
HEFCE - Also out yesterday was HEFCE's grant letter for 2014-15 which confirms how much they will get and sets out some priorities for how they should spend their allocation. This also gives some indicative figures for what they can expect to get in 2015-16. These indicative figures show the recurrent grant for research remaining static in cash terms at £1573 million in 2015-16. But it shows an ongoing fall in the recurrent teaching grant.
HEFCE administers the very valuable Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) in England. Government partnering of charity funding through this adds up to 28p to every charity pound invested in universities, ensuring the £1.2 billion medical research charities invest in research each year can go further to benefit patients and the economy. When he announced the spending round settlement last year, the Chancellor George Osborne confirmed the maintenance of the charity research support fund:
Let me respond directly to the breast cancer research campaign in which so many have taken part. We will continue to back the charity research support fund and look into making it easier for these organisations to benefit from gift aid.
Although the grant letter does not prescribe HEFCE's allocation to the CRSF, this grant letter includes a requirement for "protecting funding leveraged from external sources such as the charitiable and business sectors". We'll be looking out for HEFCE's detailed allocations later this year to make sure that HEFCE's responsiblities to the CRSF are not eroded.
What does this mean for medical research?
The case for maintaining investment in UK science and research is strong. We know we get considerable returns on our investment which benefit UK health and wealth. It is an oft quoted fact but studies suggest that for every £1 invested in medical research by the tax payer, a stream of benefits is produced equivalent to earning 37p per year in perpetuity.
And government seems to be listening.
Although the chancellor George Osborne did slightly reduce the allocation to BIS in 2015-16, it definitely wasn't the department facing the biggest cuts. In fact, putting aside health and international development which the government is committed not to cut, BIS was relatively protected. This was a recognition of the value of investing in the development of the UK's skilled workforce and continuing to build our science and research base.
Following the announcement, we all made the case to BIS that although cash might be tight and they need to make cuts, they should protect the "seed corn" and continue to invest in the science budget. This was a tough one because science does not exist in a vacuum, we need investment in education - the skilled workforce of the future - and to develop an environment where innovative new ideas can get off the ground. But underpinning all this, we need investment in the UK's science base. Capital falls out of the ringfence and previously suffered large cuts. The government has subsequently made targeted investments in capital to try and make up the shortfall. Today's allocations recognise the need to invest in both research and capital.
Sharmila Nebhrajani, Chief Executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities said:
The case is clear that science and research are worth protecting and we are grateful to George Osborne and David Willetts for personally championing the science cause in challenging economic times. Investing in UK science is important for health and wealth. The UK public continues generously to support medical research charities - 9.4 million donating each month and it is so encouraging that, despite economically challenging times, the Government continue their commitment for this important sector.
and Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust welcomed today's announcement:
It is heartening to see the Government’s continued commitment to science and research, and we welcome support for infrastructure and the UK’s world-class facilities. This investment will deliver benefits to health, to society and to the economy, and is essential to drive growth. We look forward to the Government’s upcoming science and innovation strategy which will better support academics and promote additional funding from both charities and industry.
This is a good outcome for the science and research budget but the picture isn't all rosy. A static cash budget is still a cut in real terms. And cuts elsewhere such as on departmental R&D spending and university teaching will impact on science and research. Ministers recognise this and have done the best they can for science, but we need to continue finding more innovative ways to do research and address some of the barriers to translation and uptake so that we can deliver the commercial successes and societal benefits that will fund the research base of the future.