UK research is second only to the United States in its share of citations in the biomedical and environmental sciences. Over the past decade, the support of successive Labor governments has seen spending on university research nearly double.
But now the boom period is over. Over the next few weeks, the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government will take radical steps to cut the national deficit, which last year amounted to 11.1% of GDP – significantly higher than most other major scientific countries. Some damage to science is inevitable, but the picture is not consistently bleak.
Advocacy for science within the current government seems alarmingly weak by Labour-government standards, and unwise in the major department, the Treasury. But it is far from negligible. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills – which includes the university’s base in its remit – has its cabinet minister, Liberal Democrat Vince Cable, whose first degrees were in natural sciences and economics at the University of Cambridge.
Cable has a wealth of experience in the worlds of business and finance, has several major laboratories in his constituency and has a son who, he says, “works in a specially renovated area of quantum physics and works as a scientist. An industry advocating for one person is research”. The cable is powerfully clear, and recent speeches have stressed the need for Britain to deploy science as an engine of economic growth.
Under Cable is University and Science Minister David Willetts, a conservative intellectual who has written much about economic and social policy. Last week, in his first major speech about science, Willetts made clear his commitment to the broad idea of the concept of ‘influence’ as a key criterion for government support (see http://go.nature. com/7qWw3d).
Encouragingly, they announced a one-year delay of the new university assessment exercise, the Research Excellence Framework, to develop better measures of impact.
But he reminded his listeners that, in the imminent review of spending, an important goal will be to ensure that the science base is structured in a way that maximizes those impacts. Significantly, he said the economic impact would be the primary consideration.
A former Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was strongly influenced by arguments about economic return on investment in basic research in the middle of her term.
Similarly, Willetts endorsed research stating that investment in research councils yields higher returns than initiatives such as the research and development tax credit for the private sector (see J. Haskell and G. Wallis CEPR Discussion Paper 7725; 2010, http://go.nature.com/ZCMCat).
A major economic advantage lies in doctoral graduates who end up in successful careers outside of research.
A full analysis has yet to be done, but several recent reports and data on long-term destinations for young researchers suggest that their contribution to the broader economy is substantial.
This is especially the case with the mathematical sciences, which suffered from a lack of attention under the previous government compared to the life sciences.
In short, the UK research community, which has been facing one of the toughest budget calculations in years, has more than expected pre-election support from its ministers. Only time will reveal the priorities and effectiveness of the ministers.
Nevertheless, now and in the next few years, it will be important to ensure that scholarly societies and other prominent representatives of the research community present hard evidence rather than soft claims about the contribution of science to the national well-being and the economy in particular – and That the government supports the research needed to develop that evidence.