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Willetts warning over capital funding injection

The £1.1 billion annual investment in science capital announced in last month’s spending round is the biggest “for decades” and must not be wasted.

David Willetts

That is the view of universities and science minister David Willetts, who has been giving evidence today at the latest hearing of the Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into science infrastructure.

Mr Willetts said there had been “moments” when the funding environment had looked so “tough” that he had wondered whether he would have to make a “strategic decision that we can’t any longer aim to be world class in some enormous discipline”.

But the size of the capital settlement for 2015-16 announced in the recent spending round - which will be maintained in real terms until the end of the decade - made him “increasingly confident” this would not be necessary. 

He said the “best guide” to how the increased budget would be allocated was Research Councils UK’s “Investing for Growth” plan, published last August.

The UK’s perceived lack of long-term planning over capital spending had been cited by previous witnesses to the inquiry as a source of frustration. But Mr Willetts said the RCUK document was “pretty much a long-term plan”.

“It was deliberately not done as a financial plan because we didn’t know what resource there would be to [implement] it. Now we have got substantial levels of funding and we should be able to do quite a lot of what is in it,” he said.

He also said he was “rather proud” of the “eight great technologies” document that he had prepared for Chancellor George Osborne.

He said it was a “classic example” of how a “lay” politician could “distil” advice from an array of experts, including RCUK, the Technology Strategy Board and the Government Office for Science, and noted that the priorities it set out had largely been accepted by the scientific community.

But he said the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills would still carry out a “further round of consultation” before announcing the final allocations of the increased capital budget.

“This is an incredible opportunity for the science community and we mustn’t waste it. We absolutely have to get the decisions about how we invest right,” he said.

During a previous hearing of the inquiry, Science and Technology Facilities Council chief executive John Womersley had noted that it had sometimes been difficult to find money to run the new capital facilities announced since the 2010 spending review.

Mr Willetts hoped such “frustrations” could be “overcome by smart use of funding within the £4.6 billion [science resource] ring fence”.

“But I fully realise that the next issue on the agenda will be the current resource needed to extract the greatest value from what is likely to be the biggest single programme of capital investment in science that the UK has seen in decades,” he added.

Mr Willetts also responded to concern that the UK was not doing enough to attract large international facilities to its shores.

He disputed the claim of Steven Cowley, chief executive of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority that the Jet nuclear fusion facility in Oxfordshire was the only international facility in the UK, citing also the central coordinating hub of the European Elixir life sciences data facility at Hinxton near Cambridge and the headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire.

But he admitted that the UK had “not done particularly well” in attracting European Knowledge and Innovation Communities – networks of businesses, research institutes and universities funded by the European Union - and he was “keen to see more British universities and research institutes at the heart of those networks”.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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