27 November 2015
This week, UK chancellor George Osborne set out spending plans for the next four years in the Spending Review. With warnings of cuts of up to 40% to government departments other than health and education, there were serious concerns over the likely outcome for science funding administered by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). These concerns have mostly not been realised, with a shallower budget cut than anticipated (17%) and a positive commitment from the chancellor to protect the £4.7 billion annual science budget – which has been static in recent years, an effective reduction in real terms – allowing it to rise with inflation for the duration of this Parliament. Capital investment in science has been confirmed at £6.9 billion between now and 2021.
Whilst there is widespread relief among the scientific community, not everyone will be pleased, probably including all seven heads of the current research councils. Osborne also said that the government would enact the recommendations of a recent review led by Sir Paul Nurse, which proposed replacing the current system for allocation of public funds for science via the seven different research councils with a single independent body called Research UK (RUK) to oversee and coordinate the activities of the research councils and apportion funding. The new RUK will also incorporate Innovate UK.
Other highlights of the spending review for science and innovation include a £1.5 billion Global Challenges fund to support research addressing the needs of developing countries, £150 million for a new Dementia Institute, £165 million for a new Defence and Cyber Innovation Fund, and a £130 million investment in the science facilities of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
With infectious disease threats in mind, the spending review also confirmed previously announced plans to replace existing Public Health England (PHE) facilities in Porton Down with a new science hub centre in Harlow, Essex – and announced that the PHE facilities in Colindale would also be transferred to the new £400 million centre. The funding for the Department for International Development (DFID) includes a £1 billion new fund for research and development of products for infectious diseases, in partnership with the Department of Health. The Global Antimicrobial Resistance Innovation fund, a partnership with China announced by the Prime Minister David Cameron during the recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, was also confirmed.
Finally, the government’s flagship 100,000 Genomes Project remains firmly in favour, with the promise of a further £250 million (part of an overall £5 billion earmarked for health research and development) to extend the project beyond the original 2017 deadline and ensure introduction of whole genome sequencing technology to the NHS.