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HEFCE funding says “as you were” to science

March 29, 2012

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has today announced its funding allocation for 2012-13 – a total of £5.3bn.

The money will be divided up into five key areas (see chart at bottom of page) with teaching getting the lion’s share (£3.2bn), followed by research (£1.6bn). In his budget speech last week, George Osborne pledged £100m towards university research centres, although it’s not clear whether this is part of the £1.6bn science fund or not.

While £5.3bn is available for the academic year, £9.5bn is available for the financial year, which is an overall increase of £200m from 2011-12. Most of that extra money is likely to be put towards filling the gap between university expenditure and the income generated from tuition fees, which seems strange to me given that fees will nearly triple this coming academic year.

So what’s the overall outlook for scientific research? The announcement stated:

“Science and research funding is maintained in cash terms. HEFCE will fund research selectively, focusing on world-leading and internationally excellent activity. Support for institutions undertaking research funded by charities, or business and industry, will also be maintained at current levels.”

While some scientists will take solace in hearing that funding is at least being maintained, the focus towards institutions with a strong history in scientific research will make life harder for the smaller and less-established providers of higher education.

This is coupled with the cuts in capital spending that mean that vital new equipment is unavailable as departments have to cut back their expenditure on replacing old kit. For those institutions trying to conduct research without the help of HEFCE funding, the future is looking rather bleak.

In order to build a strong reputation there needs to be money available to newcomers and those institutions that are prepared to take more risks with their research. As Sir Paul Nurse said in this year’s Dimbleby lecture: “We have to keep our spirit of adventure: to take risks and be prepared sometimes to fail as research at the cutting edge is not always successful.”

This is going to get a lot harder if the focus shifts towards research with the clearest commercial applications.

Chief executive of HEFCE, Sir Alan Langlands, said: “HEFCE remains committed to promoting the creation, dissemination and application of knowledge, supporting successive generations of students, the wider academic community and the positive contribution that higher education makes to the economy and society.

“HEFCE’s research funding will continue to play a crucial part in maintaining the strength and dynamism of the research base, supporting ‘blue skies’ research and encouraging programmes that impact positively on economic growth and social well-being. Funding for innovation and knowledge exchange will continue to drive economic development.”

It seems to be very much the same old mantra that we’ve been hearing repeatedly from the Government: we know how important scientific research is to the economy so we are going to leave things pretty much as they are.

How can this stance be the most effective route to supporting the UK’s world-renowned scientific research base and steering the country to economic recovery?

HEFCE funding allocation 2012-13

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