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Purse String Theory Flashback 1: politics and business

April 23, 2012

Purse String Theory (PST) began in October 2011, one year after the government froze the science budget at £4.6 billion – a real-terms cut of £1.7 billion. We set out to explore the ongoing funding debate among scientists, lobbyists, politicians and academics. In this mini-series of posts, each PST contributor reflects on the journey thus far.

When I first started PST I didn’t expect to find much. While the chancellor’s cuts were forcing libraries and daycare centres to close, the science budget was ring-fenced – the scientists were the lucky ones! And yet digging deeper and deeper into the policy world through face-to-face meetings, phone calls and the lively #scipolicy hashtag on Twitter, I’ve realised that science funding is a very rich topic indeed.

From all the posts I’ve published on PST, I’m going to ring-fence a few into three key themes I’ve explored – and what the PST community and I have learnt along the way.

Science funding as a political tool

Since graphene is described as a “wonder material” not only by journalists but scientists too, it’s no surprise that George Osborne found an extra £50m to commercialise it. The announcement gave the chancellor some decent photo opportunities with the Nobel prize winners who first created graphene.

But it’s not just the Tories who are capable of science politicking. In November, Labour’s Andrew Miller MP, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, told PST that he promised to “flush out” the truth about the science budget. Apparently influenced by the CaSE report on science funding, Miller even asked a parliamentary question about it. To my knowledge, he hasn’t done much on this topic since. To me, that poses the question: does he really care or was he just politicking?

Science to breed business

Blue skies research is endangered in light of the government’s position that science should result in economic growth. Of course, some funding is still available for wide-open questions, but increasingly the drive is towards commercialisation. To that extent, the government has allocated specific funds (and MPs have began an inquiry into the “valley of death”).

In December, David Cameron pledged a £180m catalyst fund to help bounce science from the lab bench and into the market. Thanks to comments posted on PST, the community helped me to understand how the catalyst fund was not the “new money” the government said it was. In any case, I made a short video of industry insiders and academics to hear how they would spend the catalyst cash.

Collaboration

The main method of commercialising research is, of course, collaboration between scientists and business. Following science policy since PST began, I’ve tracked the government’s – especially David Willetts’ – desire for a tighter relationship between science and industry. One of the industrial liaison scientists at the Diamond Light Source explained how she expects more collaboration between the two groups.

And although there appears to be little resistance in the UK to the use of public money used ultimately for private gain, some European politicians don’t like the idea. We quoted Teresa Riera, a socialist MEP from Spain: “Public money should not be used to finance R&D activities in private companies.” As PST said, it’s hard to tell whether industry collaborations are a rip off or BOGOF.

My PST

Thanks to everyone who has helped PST so far by giving their time, stories and opinions. This blog can only be as strong as the interested community. I intend to keep building it in some form or another. Expect an exciting announcement on that front soon. Meantime, keep following us here and on Twitter.

In our next PST Flashback post, Lisa Raffensperger explores the nature of the PST community.

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