Scientists in the United Kingdom are celebrating today as government cuts to research funds have been frozen rather than slashed dramatically, as they previously feared. A comprehensive review of government spending, released today, promised that science funding would be kept at £4.6 billion annually, amounting to only around a 10 percent loss due to inflation.
Nevertheless, that effective 10 percent loss has sparked fears of a “brain drain” as Britain’s top scientists flee for nations with better science funding, including Germany, France, Singapore and the United States.
“This is still a significant cut when other countries have recognised that if you want to go for growth, you have to invest in science,” Campaign for Science and Engineering director Imran Khan told the Guardian. “Flat cash means a 10 percent cut over the four-year period and the people who will feel that cut soonest are the young scientists, who we will struggle to retain in this country.”
Not everyone was thankful for the government’s concessions. Mark Downs, the CEO of the Society of Biology, a biology advocacy group, was critical of even the 10 percent loss.
“The government has failed to recognise what all charities know – an economic downturn is the time to invest in fundraising to ensure future prosperity,” he told the BBC. “It is research and development, coupled with skilled people that will deliver growth. Our international competitors have recognised that: the coalition government has yet to fully accept that reality.”
While the government review did largely protect science spending, other programs weren’t so lucky. In trying to close a £156 billion deficit, Osbourne identified £81 billion of public spending that can be cut. Among other measures, Britain will raise the pension age to 66 in 2018; local council budgets will be sliced by 7.1 percent; the Ministry of Defence will lose 8 percent of its budget and 42,000 jobs; a further 490,000 public sector jobs are to be cut; the BBC must freeze its license fee and absorb the Foreign Office-run World Service, amounting to 16 percent cuts; national museums face 15 percent cuts; and Arts Council England has been slashed almost 30 percent.
“Tackling this budget deficit is unavoidable. The decisions about how we do it are not. There are choices. And today we make them. Investment in the future rather than the bills of past failure. That is our choice,” Osbourne said. Along with science research, education and health care were also protected from serious cuts.
Ironically, at the same time as government science spending has been spared, the U.K.’s only book award for popular science, the Royal Society Prize for Science Books, is also under threat. The 22-year-old award has yet to find a replacement funding partner for the Royal Society, which has announced it can no longer pay for the £10,000 prize. French pharmaceutical company Aventis had sponsored the award until 2007.
“Science is an integral part of our culture and it is immensely important that the joy, wonder and excitement of scientific discovery is effectively communicated to all,” Royal Society President Lord Rees said. “The [prize] has celebrated the very best science writing since 1988 and helped to encourage engagement with science. The Royal Society greatly values the prizes, however, in these tough economic times we have to secure a sponsor to ensure they can continue in future years.”
Previous winners have included physicist Stephen Hawking, anthropologist Jared Diamond, zoologist Stephen Jay Gould and travel writer Bill Bryson.