Osborne gets behind science

Science is moving ever closer to being at the heart of plans for the British economy, if George Osborne’s first speech about the field is anything to go by.

Speaking at The Royal Society on Friday the 9th of November, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has challenged the scientific community to make Britain a world leader in eight areas of scientific research. He pledged the government’s backing to achieve this, but it remains unclear how much of this support will be financial.

His speech was peppered with many examples of British scientific endeavours from these eight focus areas. An example was taken from a Bristol lab where a self-sustaining robot that converts the biomatter of dead flies to electricity to power itself, is currently being created.

He pointed out the positive government initiatives for science. Yet, the only new announcement in the speech was the government’s commitment of an average of £240 million annually for the next 5 years to the European space agency for scientific and industrial programmes. Other government incentives he mentioned included the ring-fenced cash budget of £4.6 billion for science and tax cuts and credits for business that conduct research and development. They are also introducing a tax discount for patents. He was careful to highlight the spending of the research councils throughout, without going into details.

However, this speech seems to be but a sticking plaster over previous criticisms that the funding for science pledged by the coalition is far lower than that seen in countries we compete with for scientific business such as Germany, Sweden and South Korea. Many worry that we will not be able to advance sufficiently to be a world leader when so many counties have much better science budgets, facilities and Government support.

Furthermore, the much celebrated ring-fenced budget does not account for inflation. According to BBC news, Imran Khan, the director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CASE), has highlighted that the ring fence budget neglects the 41% cut to capital expenditure made in the previous year. Capital expenditure accounts for money needed to maintain labs and facilities, not the day to day running costs. 41% equates to a cut of around £1.7bn.

Mr. Osborne has also been accused of picking winners by selecting only eight areas. Some worry that by only championing selected fields, the pool of general science and knowledge will be greatly reduced. If this reduction was significant, it could endanger the generation of new technologies and advances not yet even dreamed of. However, the areas he highlighted are broad enough that it is unlikely scientific inquiry will be stifled drastically.

Crucially, throughout his speech, the Chancellor came across as well-informed and appreciative of the importance of science and its role in society. The scientific community should find great comfort in this.

We have a Chancellor who seems to understand and respect the scientific community and who has clearly listened to the research councils. The phrase “intellectual inquiry is worthwhile in itself” even passes his lips during his lecture, which will be music to the ears of many science enthusiasts across the country.

Words indicating understanding are all well and good, but without the money to back science in Britain we will fall behind. This must not be allowed to happen. Paul Nurse, president of The Royal Society and host of the speech, jokingly reminded the Chancellor not to “forget to put your money where your mouth is”. We must not let George Osborne forget this.

The autumn statement will be very telling as to whether he is able to back us as much as claims he would like too.

The Eight Focus Areas:

1. Synthetic biology: harnessing the $100 billon economy

2. Data revolution and energy effiicient computing

3. Regenerative medicine

4. Agricultural science

5. Energy storage and stockpiling of electricity

6. Advanced materials and nano-technology

7. Robotics and autonomous systems

8. To be the global leader in satellites and commercial space applications of space technology.

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