Scientists call for higher government investment in research

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High-profile scientists including Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking have locked horns with ministers over the “erosion” of UK government funding for research.

Academics are calling on the coalition to increase its support for scientific studies when it publishes its next spending review in June.

Core spending on science was ring-fenced during the 2010 spending review, but cash for capital projects was subsequently trimmed and individual government departments have seen cuts to their budgets for science, according to researchers.

Now the Science is Vital campaign is calling on Chancellor George Osborne to increase spending on science from 0.6 per cent of the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP) – its economic output – to 0.8 per cent, matching the average for the G8 group of industrialised nations.

Such a rise would take science spending from about £9 billion to about £12bn a year.

Even with the increase, campaigners highlighted that both France and the United States are spending 0.9 per cent of their GDP on research and development (R&D), while emerging economies such as China and South Korea are also upping their spending on science.

Dr Jenny Rohn, a principal research associate at University College London and the founder of the grass-roots campaign, yesterday launched a petition to garner support.

In the run-up to the 2010 spending review, her petition gathered more than 35,000 signatures and led to protests outside the Treasury by researchers and their supporters.

Dr Rohn told The Scotsman: “With everything seeming so gloomy after the Budget, it may seem counter-intuitive to start spending more on science.

“But this is exactly the right time to do it in order to stimulate the economy. Studies have shown that cutting science spending has negative effects on countries’ economies.”

She added: “The recent warning over superbugs that could be resistant to antibiotics is a good example of why we need to fund scientific research.

“Pharmaceutical companies won’t develop drugs on their own if it’s not profitable and so research in the public sector is needed too. We take science for granted in the way that it improves our lives, but when people start dying from infections after routine operations like hip replacements then there will obviously be consequences.”

Professor Colin Blakemore, former chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said there had been a “chilling” fall in the UK’s international rankings when it came to public and private spending on R&D.

He said: “This isn’t about funding scientists with fluffy ideas – this is about the very lifeblood of the economy. We need to rebalance the economy to create innovative products that people want to buy and science is at the very heart of that.”

The campaign has been welcomed by a number of Scotland’s researchers.

Professor John Brown, the astronomer royal for Scotland and an honorary research fellow at Glasgow University, said: “Any boost for science spending would be welcome. It may sound greedy, but I think the 0.8 per cent of GDP figure should be a minimum.

“Certainly in the field of astronomy, I always felt we were lagging behind our American or European colleagues when it came to funding.”

St Andrews University chemistry Professor Jim Naismith added: “The Research Councils fund the best science throughout the UK and at the moment they’re turning down more world-class science than they are funding. That can’t go on.”

Scott Johnstone, chief executive of the Scottish Lifesciences Association trade body, said: “As a key sector of the Scottish economy, life sciences is very dependent for a prosperous future on successful scientific research and development which leads to new products and healthcare services.

“So this association supports the call to restore the public sector budget allocated to science research, especially where that research is well aligned with life sciences business research activity.”

The UK government defended its record on science funding. A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills said: “The UK is home to the most productive research base in the world, with more citations per pound spent in overall research and development than any other country.

“Earlier this week, the government announced a £1.5bn package to support our industrial strategy, a proportion of which will be invested in research and development for the future of UK industry.

“On top of that, despite enormous pressure on public spending, the £4.6bn per annum funding for science and research programmes has been protected in cash terms and ring fenced against future pressures during the spending review period.

“We have also announced over £1.5bn of additional capital investment in science and innovation since the spending review, on top of the £1.9bn science capital budget.”