Research ‘already harmed’ by funding freeze

Scientific research in the UK has been harmed by the current spending freeze, a report has claimed

Despite research funding getting a better than predicted “flat cash” settlement in the last spending review, a campaign group is warning that cuts in capital and the impact of inflation have nonetheless already taken their toll.

An online and voluntary survey of 868 researchers by the grassroots group Science is Vital found that the majority reported a fall in the number of grants funded and a decrease in the overall funding within grants since 2010.

They also reported difficulty in recruiting staff and PhD students and in obtaining the necessary equipment or consumables to perform research to modern standards.

Of those who had attempted to recruit PhD students, 49 per cent said changes to PhD funding by the research councils meant they had recruited fewer, while 24 per cent said they were not able to recruit any students at all.

Others pointed to the adverse effect of the freeze on early-career researchers, commenting that the smaller amount of money available seemed to be funnelled towards “large groups and big names”.

“We were quite frankly surprised by just how much scientists are struggling to cope in the current climate of managed decline in funding,” said Jennifer Rohn, principal research associate at University College London and chair of Science is Vital.

“In only three years, significant damage has already been done, and further lack of support will only make things worse,” she added.

The group said the survey also found a lack of confidence in the “trajectory and promise” of UK science and a recognition that some of the UK’s competitor countries are more attractive, in some cases inspiring researchers to leave the country.

Science is Vital said the report “uncovered the widespread view that the ability of UK scientists to perform excellence research has been significantly impaired since the 2010 decision”.

It comes ahead of the 2015-16 spending review on 26 June, at which ministers have hinted that science spending will be prioritised

But the report calls for the research budget not only to be protected but increased if the government is not to “perpetuate the decline”.

Legacy of the 2010 science budget cash freeze was delivered to universities and science minister David Willetts on 17 June.

The report quotes an estimate from the Campaign for Science and Engineering that the science budget will have been effectively eroded by 12 per cent by the end of this budget period in 2015.

elizabeth.gibney@tsleducation.com

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