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Last Updated: Monday, 5 March 2007, 12:17 GMT
Scientists lament raid on research
By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Researcher holds wafer (BBC)
The DTI action breaches a point of principle, the heads say
The heads of the agencies responsible for funding British science have told BBC News that ring-fenced money for research should not be diverted to pay for failures at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

Their comments follow an announcement by the DTI that it is taking back 68m from the Research Councils.

The department says it has had to reduce science spending for one year to pay for "exceptional" and ongoing costs resulting from the collapse of the Rover car company and the unexpected increase in support needed to cover British Energy's nuclear liabilities.

No-one likes having their budgets cut, but the heads of the research councils are concerned that the claw-back signals an alarming shift in the way in which government funds science.

There's a growing case for science to be administered and funded quite distinctly and separately from the rest of government
Colin Blakemore, MRC
According to Professor Julia Goodfellow, who heads up the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), said the DTI had raided money specifically protected and earmarked for investment in science to pay for departmental failures.

"There is a ring fence there for a reason," said Professor Goodfellow.

"Science innovation and research is about the medium to long term. If you start cutting it because of a short-term need then you have real problems."

Global competition

This may seem like an arcane administrative point, the council heads say, but it is a breach in principle that damages the government's credibility among leading science-based industries.

Professor Randal Richards is interim chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). He believes firms will think again about investing in the UK if science spending is raided every time there is a short-term crisis.

Rover car (AP)
Fall-out from the Rover collapse is part of the reason for cuts
"It's the return you reap from the investment in the future, in providing competitive people and excellent quality research, that encourages companies, in this global world, to invest in the research environment in the UK," he told BBC News.

"It's cuts like this that one could imagine could cause some companies to think twice."

The research heads also say that the move undermines the commitment made by the Prime Minister last November to prioritise science spending in order to compete with huge investments being made by India and China.

According to Professor Colin Blakemore, who leads the Medical Research Council (MRC), it might be time to take science funding out of the DTI's hands.

"Science and the maintenance of science should be a process that's independent of the needs of any particular government department," he said.

"I think there's a strong and growing case for science to be handled and administered and funded really quite distinctly and separately from the rest of government; perhaps even the establishment of an independent department of science with its own protected budget."

European challenge

The views of the Research Councils' heads were backed by Professor Martin Rees, the current president of the Royal Society, the body that represents senior scientists.

Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC): 5.3m
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC): 6.7m
Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC): 0.5m
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC): 29m
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC): 3m
Medical Research Council (MRC): 10.7m
Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc): 9.7m
Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PParc): 3.1m (Source: DTI)
"Science has to be planned in a long-term, consistent way, and I think it sends a negative signal if the budget is cut at the last minute," he said.

"It's particularly disappointing because there's been a tradition that the science budget has been ring fenced against encroachment from other areas of the department's budget, and that principle seems to have been breached in this case."

The DTI says the cut represents just 1% of the government's expenditure on science, and it expects the recent trend of rising spending to continue.

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

Britain has a "10-year plan" to raise science investment, and during the term of the present Labour administration, funding has almost trebled. However, the UK, along with its partners in Europe, is set to miss an EU-wide objective of investing 3% of GDP in R&D by 2010.

A principal reason for this is the switch away from manufacturing, the industrial sector that does most R&D.

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