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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 February 2007, 00:33 GMT
Car company collapse hits science
Artist impression of carbon molecules (SPL)
The government says it remains committed to UK science
UK science has become an unexpected victim of the Rover collapse as funds used to soften the impact of the failure were clawed back from research.

The Department for Trade and Industry said it faced financial pressures that required it to re-balance its spending.

Ongoing costs related to the loss of the Rover car company and the rescue package put together for British Energy were cited as causes for the shortfall.

It means 68m given to the UK Research Councils by the DTI will be taken back.

"The sum involved amounts to less than 1% of nearly 10bn awarded by government to science over the current three-year spending period," explained a spokesman.

"The science budget has more than doubled since 1997 to 3.4bn a year and, even in the light of this decision, it continues to rise year on year."

The money will come out of the pot the Research Councils use to buffer their own spending at the end of the year - money which can be carried forward if unspent.

The reality, however, said several senior scientists, was that such money is always spent eventually, and the claw-back would have real, negative results.

Economic benefit

The biggest hit will be taken by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which loses 29m; followed by the Medical Research Council, at 10.7m; and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBRSC), which gives back 6.7m.

The BBSRC said it now expected to cut the equivalent of 20 new grants, and would reduce its annual competitive funding scheme for new equipment at its sponsored institutes.

Rover car (AP)
The fall-out from the Rover collapse is part of the reason
"It is inevitable with changes of this size that frontline research will be affected," said the council's Chief Executive, Professor Julia Goodfellow.

"How deep the damage will be to the UK's international competitiveness in bioscience depends on how long it takes us to return to our planned trajectory for growth."

Dr Richard Wilson, of the Royal Academy of Engineering, added: "Investment in science and engineering research does make important contributions to innovations that are of benefit to business and to society as a whole.

"These cuts are a victory for short-termism over the long-term interests of the UK."

And Dr Peter Cotgreave, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said: "The overall amounts of money being cut from the Research Councils may only be small percentages of their total budgets, but cutting investment in research now is out of line with what the government says it wants.

"We will not achieve the Chancellor and Prime Minister's vision of a knowledge-based economy by cutting research."

European goal

Even with the recent boost in funding under this government's "10-year plan" for science, Britain, along with its European partners, is set to miss an EU R&D investment target of 3% of GDP by 2010.

The UK currently invests 1.9% of its national wealth in R&D, and expects only to get to 2.5% by 2014. A key factor is the sluggish spend on innovation by industry.

The full DTI reductions are:

  • Arts and Humanities Research Council: 5.3m
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council 6.7m
  • Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils 0.5m
  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council 29m
  • Economic and Social Research Council 3m
  • Medical Research Council 10.7m
  • Natural Environment Research Council 9.7m
  • Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council 3.1m

Rover collapsed in 2005, with the loss of more than 6,000 jobs. The government committed millions to retrain the workforce for alternative employment, and to support supply firms that depended on Rover.

The business itself was eventually bought from the administrators by Chinese carmaker Nanjing Automotive.

Rover's decline is thought to have cost taxpayers some 270m from 2000 to 2005.

Most of the UK's public science spend is channelled through the DTI to the Research Councils, who then invest just under 3bn a year on a broad range of academic disciplines.

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