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21/12/2014

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Report highlights how decline in science funding could be harming the future of research in the UK

A study by Science is Vital has found that researchers within the United Kingdom are struggling to maintain competitiveness and effectiveness in the current funding climate.

The report, “Legacy of the 2010 science budget cash freeze” was compiled by the Grassroots campaign group, in collaboration with the British Science Association.

Science is Vital polled 868 researchers on their experiences of performing scientific research since the funding erosion initiated by the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) – and found that many scientists at all levels are experiencing more difficulties in carrying out research than they did before the CSR.

The British Science Association played a role in consulting the scientists and engineers of the future, surveying a student focus group to gauge their views of research career prospects in the UK. These findings were included in the report.

This report will today be delivered to the Rt Hon David Willetts, MP, the Minister of State for Universities and Science.

The exercise uncovered the widespread view that the ability of UK scientists to perform excellent research has been significantly impaired since the 2010 decision, which resulted in an overall erosion of the amount of public funds supporting science. Many of the respondents reported, that compared to pre-2010 levels they were experiencing:

-A decrease in the number of grants funded

-A decrease in overall money supplied even when grants were funded

-A difficulty in recruiting the necessary staff

-A difficulty in recruiting PhD students

-A difficulty in obtaining necessary equipment or consumables to perform research to modern standards

-A lack of confidence in the trajectory and promise of UK science

-A recognition that some of the UK’s competitors are more attractive, in some cases inspiring researchers to leave the UK, or a research career, altogether.

Science as Vital warn that if the current funding decline is not soon reversed, we risk seriously damaging our research base, with all the knock-on effects to the economy and to industrial interest that this could induce.

The group felt it was vital to include the views of the nation’s next generation of scientists and engineers – as decisions made by this government will affect their future aspirations to develop a research career in the UK. The British Science Association joined forces with the campaign, to father the opinions of a group of young people aged between 14 and 21, all of whom are highly engaged in STEM subjects.

The focus group was composed of members of the CREST youth panel, and National Science + Engineering Competition volunteers (former competitors at the national finals, who now assist in competitor care at the Competition.)

Although the students’ had largely positive views of the strength of research in the UK, their comments also made clear that they did not feel the UK was necessarily the best place for aspiring researchers to start their career.

Comments included:

“A lot of the advancements that interest me are engineering, mostly based in Europe and America, typically where there is more funding.”

“I have heard from many people in industry there is a lack of investment in this country compared with others.”

“There are a number of well-funded positions in fields that I'm interested in outside of the UK. The funding opportunities seem better in some Australian universities.”

When asked whether they would consider moving outside the UK to start on their research career in STEM, none of the students answered ‘no’; and more than half answered ‘yes’, with the rest undecided. This raises concerns that the UK environment may not be as enticing to this group as we would like it to be, especially if our aim is to nurture and foster local talent in the sciences.

The report proposes two recommendations to redress the situation: to increase the science budget at the next spending review later on this month; and to make a longer-term commitment of scientific support, eventually reaching a level of support comparable to 0.8% of GDP – the current G8 average. This plan has already been robustly backed, in a recent letter to the Daily Telegraph, by more than 50 top scientists including seven Nobel laureates, such as Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Tim Hunt.

Colin Blakemore, FMedSci, FRS, Universities of Oxford and London, said:

“The funding of research is a measure of the government's faith in the future. The settlement for science in 2010 was better than predicted but the cuts in real terms are already causing real hardship and are damaging the UK's remarkable international standing in science. George Osborne has frequently signalled his personal belief in the central importance of science in the future of the UK. Now is the time for him to turn that belief into action. A significant increase in the science budget would send a message to our major competitors that the government recognises that science and innovation are the key to the recovery of the UK economy."

 

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