Flat science funding shows flat earth thinking

State funding for science in the UK is to remain fixed, under public spending plans revealed today by chancellor George Osbourne. That is, the resource budget is unchanged at £4.6bn, while the capital infrastructure fund is set to increase from £600m to £1.1bn. This is being spun in glowing terms…

“Investment in science is an investment in our future. So, yes, from the next generation of jet engines to cutting edge supercomputers, we say, ‘keep inventing, keep delivering’. This country will back you all the way.”

A typically vacuous statement from Osbourne, but then one shouldn’t expect more from a politician of any ideological hue. Scientists and engineers base their judgements on evidence, or at least they are supposed to. I suspect that the reaction to today’s news will be one of resigned cynicism.

Since the mid-1990s UK scientists have been pretty successful in their lobbying efforts. At the start of my PhD project in 1993 the mood was bleak, with poverty wages, funding cuts across the board, and no clear career path for new graduates.

Furious campaigning by early career researchers – with, it must be said, little in the way of support from academics’ trade unions – led to significant salary hikes for postdocs, and concordats governing the treatment and career progression of contract research staff in Britain’s universities. Public sector salaries for scientists and engineers are now comparable with those in the private sector. There are serious problems still, but the situation is a damn sight better than when I started out in science.

UK scientists are today paid respectable salaries that reflect their levels of expertise and educational achievement, but the state of science funding in general terms is poor. The problem is that, however many expensive new supercomputers you throw at science and engineering problems, research is a labour-intensive activity, and too few people are employed to do the work required. Faculty members spend increasing amounts of time engaged in group management and trawling for funding, while the science is largely carried out by grizzled contract researchers aided by bushy-tailed doctoral students. It doesn’t take long for the shine to dull and hair to grey.

When appeals are made for more science funding, the easy option for politicians is to chuck a few hundred million quid more at big infrastructure projects. It looks good on the books, and yields large PR dividends, but governments invariably fail to follow through with support for the people who actually do the science. George Osbourne is merely following this time-dishonoured tradition.