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Cutting science

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OPTIMISTS might hope that the Government is simply in the process of softening up the universities and the scientific research community in preparation for the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review, but the signs are not encouraging. In a clearly carefully choreographed double-act last week, ministers in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills set out their thoughts on future science and innovation policy, and on university funding.

First, in a speech at Queen Mary College in London, Vince Cable, secretary of state in the department, highlighted the importance of research and innovation to future economic growth while pointing out the need to operate in 'a financially constrained environment'. The challenge, he said, was 'to achieve more with less' and 'to economise without damaging science'. The traditional 'lazy way' to make spending cuts was by salami slicing (shaving a bit off everything) – but, he said, 'I have no intention of going there.' His preference was 'to ration research funding by excellence and back research teams of international quality – and screen out mediocrity – regardless of where they are and what they do'.

Although the Government should not politicise choices of what kind of science should and should not be done, he believed that there was a strong case for identifying broad themes. He supported top-class 'blue skies' research but, he said, 'there is no justification for taxpayers' money being used to support research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding.'

Discussing the commercialisation of research, Dr Cable suggested that the UK's record in this area was improving but that it needed to do more. He suggested that a national network of technology and innovation centres might be useful in this respect but that, if such a network were to be established, funding should not be spread too thinly. The aim should be to establish a relatively small number of well-funded centres with 'long-term vision, focused on areas of clear technical leadership and commercial promise'.

In a second speech, at Universities UK's annual conference, David Willetts, minister of state for universities and science, underlined the message that cuts were coming, that these could be painful and that 'efficiency savings' were necessary. Options being considered by ministers included reducing the unit of resource per student, reducing the number of students, or expecting graduates to make a greater contribution to the cost of their education once they were earning. Decisions would have to await the conclusions of Lord Browne's review of higher educational funding and the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review, but Mr Willetts made clear his preference for a bigger contribution from graduates: 'I do believe that it is better for the younger generation to have the chance of going to university and then pay for it out of the higher earnings they achieve later on, rather than experiencing poorer-quality higher education or being deprived of the opportunity altogether. This has to make sense for young people. What would not make sense would be to fail to increase the contribution from graduates, with the result that we then jeopardised the student experience or ended up having to make big cuts in student numbers.'

In one of the few positive messages to emerge from the two ministers' speeches, he said that fundamental to the Government's vision was renewed emphasis on teaching, and he called for excellence in teaching to be rewarded as well as excellence in research.

The kind of changes being talked about will affect students, teachers and researchers in the veterinary field, and this must be cause for concern. The threatened cuts are also worrying in more general terms, particularly in view of recent reports from the international Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) arguing that investment in innovation is key to boosting economic growth, and suggesting that the UK is slipping down the international league table in terms of the number of graduates produced.

In his speech on science policy, Dr Cable, like many ministers before him, first tried to establish his scientific credentials, describing himself as 'one of the few MPs to have at least started a science degree – well, it began as natural science and ended up as economics'. The shortage of MPs with a background in science has long been a problem, and is perhaps worthy of a policy shift in itself.

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