Science Minister won’t be drawn on the consequences of a ‘Brexit’

Jo Johnson MP, Minister for Universities and Science, was lavish in his praise of the achievements of the science and engineering community in the UK at the 30th anniversary Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) lecture last night. Yet he was far less forthcoming about the impact of a potential ‘Brexit’ on the continuing success of this endeavour, despite a number of attempts by the audience to press him on this point.

The Minister was clear that the Government sees science as vital to economic growth, stating that the Chancellor, George Osborne, hasn’t missed an opportunity to recognise science and engineering in policy pronouncements and budget statements. The settlement that science received in the 2015 Comprehensive Spending Review reflects this appreciation for science, Mr Johnson said, providing £4.7 billion in real terms, on top of £6.9 billion in promised capital expenditure to 2020. Under this and the previous, coalition, Government, the Minister said that science had been treated to a ‘decade of sustained investment’. He emphasised the Government’s commitment to maintaining the Haldane Principle – with decisions about the allocation of science funding resting with scientists – and the dual support system (between funding for universities and funding for research projects), with a commitment to encouraging curiosity-driven research.

However there is no doubt that big changes are under consideration for science and higher education in this country, predominantly changes to the Research Councils (as a result of the recommendations of the Nurse Review), changes to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the introduction of a similar framework for Teaching (the TEF). Lord Stern is currently leading a review of the REF, with the aim of reducing the administrative burden of this and cutting the costs of allocating research spend. Research Councils UK will become Research UK and it’s still unclear what will happen to the seven existing Research Councils within this. Jo Johnson stated last night that ‘strong leadership in individual research areas will continue’ but that the taxpayer must get the best value for money. It is the Government’s intention to formally allocate funding to individual Research Councils by mid-February, presumably before any further reorganisation comes into effect.

The Minister made two announcements during the speech. One was the expansion of the Newton Fund to support research collaborations between the UK and overseas – to £150m a year by 2021. This is in addition to the ‘Grand Challenges Research Fund’ that was announced last year, which will be £1.5 billion for research to support sustainable development, to 2021.

The second announcement was to ‘tackle deficiencies in STEM capital’, by which the Minister meant a lack of scientific training and background in families – including his own. The Minister has been discussing with Schools Minister Nick Gibb, how to compensate for a lack of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) in young people’s backgrounds. As a result the Government is partnering with the Wellcome Trust to set up a competitive ‘Inspiring Science Capital Fund‘, which complements the STEM ambassadors scheme and other existing projects to encourage people to study science subjects and ultimately science careers.

This support and appreciation for science and engineering is of course to be welcomed and was encouraging to hear, but on the subject of Europe, the audience were left unsatisfied. The Minister was clear in his recognition that science is not a solitary endeavour and that international collaborations are vital to its continuing success. The links between UK and EU researchers and institutions are long-standing and deep. The Minister also recognised the importance of the free movement of people to facilitating these collaborative partnerships. Research funding must flow to where the best science is done, regardless of geography, Mr Johnson said, recognising that the UK is a large beneficiary of EU research funding.

When pressed however on what the consequences of an exit from the EU in a forthcoming referendum could be for science and engineering, the Minister refused to comment. He stated that the Prime Minister was ‘fighting hard’ to renegotiate with EU leaders to secure changes to the UK’s relationship with Europe, focusing on restricting access to benefits for EU migrants and opting out from ‘ever closer union’. He did state in his speech that ‘risks to science mean that the ‘leave’ campaign have serious questions to answer’ and that they ‘must explain how they would sustain current levels of collaboration and funding’ but he would not speculate on this himself. The Government is focusing on ‘reform, renegotiation, referendum’ and want this approach to be successful; he would not be drawn on what would happen to science funding were it not. He stated that he ‘would not talk about hypothetical outcomes against what we all want to see’.

There were further comments and questions from the audience regarding the need for further investment in science and engineering; one questioner making the good point that the UK’s spend on science is the lowest in the G8 and that as the economy grows, the science budget will further shrink as a proportion of GDP. A business leader commented that if the UK receives great ‘bang for its buck’ already – as the Minister highlighted – then surely it would make more sense to invest ‘more bucks for more bangs’. Again the Minister wouldn’t be drawn on this point, stating only that the Government had made the strategic decision to continue to invest in science against a very difficult fiscal backdrop and that science spending had to be tensioned against a myriad of other competing priorities.

The Minister recognised that the science and research community have called for greater certainty from Government regarding their commitment to support for science and engineering – calling for a ‘road map’ for science investment for example. He was clear however that the Government had delivered all it could in the present climate, with a five-six year time horizon. it is for the science, engineering and research community to continue to make the case effectively to Government, as they have been successful in doing to date, for continued investment in the science base, and to make the case also to the public about the consequences of a ‘Brexit’ for science in the run-up to a referendum.