Making sense of science spending

Philippa Brice

9 November 2015

A new report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has called for an increase in governmental spending on science and innovation, in order to retain the UK’s status as a global scientific leader. The report follows an inquiry into the current Science Budget, ahead of the governmental 2015 Spending Review later this month, which will set the resource budgets for science and innovation for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to manage.

The good news

The report concludes that the UK ‘has much to boast about’ when it comes to science, citing the fact that the UK ranks second globally for the quality of scientific research institutions and in the Global Innovation Index, besides producing lavish numbers of Nobel Prize winners, patents, and benefits - including health gains. To put this in perspective, science-driven innovations in cancer care are said to have delivered ‘health gains equivalent to £124 billion for UK patients between 1991 and 2010 through prevention, early identification, and improved survival’.

The bad news

The UK’s current position is especially strong allowing for our relative underspend on scientific research and development (R&D) – 1.7% of GDP, compared with an OECD average of 2.4% and the 2.8% and 2.9% spent by the US and Germany, respectively. However, the report warns that the lag behind global competitors must be reversed if a decline in UK scientific productivity and pre-eminence – not to mention prosperity - is to be avoided. Budgets have been relatively protected in recent years, compared with the massive cuts faced by many other areas of public sector spending, but the report says that the flat-cash settlement for the Science Budget that has been in place since 2015 is an effective value fall of around 6%.

Budget aside, it also notes that many sources the inquiry consulted with said that success in exploiting this research remained inadequate suboptimal; the Catapult network and university technology transfer offices were said to be having some positive impact but that the UK ‘has consistently failed to exploit fully the results of its research outputs’. Does this really matter? The report is clear that it does, citing ‘a backdrop of rapid technical advances and industrial expansion in Asia and elsewhere’ i.e. the relentless rise of global competitors.

Meeting the challenge

Unsurprisingly, the main remedy proposed by the report is increased science spending. It calls for a long-term plan for increasing public and private sector investment in science R&D up to 3% of GDP. Other recommendations include a call to ring-fence Innovate UK’s budget and ensuring that there are sufficient resources made available to fully exploit previous major infrastructure investments.

Nicola Blackwell commented: “We face a century of complex societal challenges - from ageing to contagious diseases, climate change to antibiotic resistance – and it will be our researchers and innovators who are at the forefront of sustaining our way of life. We have responsibility to safeguard both the quality and the productivity of our science base to ensure we are in a position to meet that challenge”.

This is undoubtedly true – science offers us vital opportunities to improve our lives, not least in the area of health and wellbeing. The relationship between science and health and spending is a somewhat uneasy one, with concern that medical improvements come with an ever-rising price tag. However, used properly science and innovation offer genuine opportunities for cost-effective improvements, and the current climate of extreme financial stringency could – and arguably must – yield transformational change in our approach to healthcare, making the most of technology to support professionals, patients and populations in maintaining health and treating disease.

In investment we (blindly) trust?

Increased investment in scientific R&D does make sense, being likely to generate greater financial returns, as well as representing a tiny proportion of overall Government spending. The comparison with global competitors is a much more compelling argument than the views of the scientific organisations and individuals consulted, who felt that increased investment was the solution; it always is.

Perhaps most telling is the Committee’s call for a long-term plan and the intelligent deployment of investment in order to fully ‘sweat our assets’. Relatively little attention is paid to the failure to make the most of our current assets and investments, although reasons cited include ‘short termism, risk aversion and an academic bias against industry and commerce’.

The Government should consider increasing spending, despite the necessity for drastic cuts to most departmental budgets of 25-40%; putting money into great science can be a hard-headed investment. But surely there is an even more compelling imperative to look long and hard at exactly how and why we are failing to optimise the returns on our existing investments in science, and put a tiny proportion of the money behind that instead.

Time to do more, for less

Even with strong political support for innovation and science, typified by Innovate UK and the Catapult Network, and on exploiting technology to deliver solutions for health, there persist distressing pressures to throw money at the problem – to assume that investment in research will in and of itself solve problems. The current health service mantra is ‘doing more with less’. The same should arguably apply to science spending.

Just as investment in ‘translational research’ is necessary but emphatically not sufficient to generate clinical implementation, scientific R&D spending is not enough to ensure the high value returns the country needs. Of course, investing in foresight and strategic planning and the solving of complex ‘wicked’ problems (that is, in intelligent policy to direct implementation) is a lot less sexy than ploughing it into massive science projects and enjoying the inevitable accolades. But it is just as necessary, and also a great deal cheaper. For want of a few nails, we risk losing much more than a few horse shoes.