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Cut science funding at your peril, MP warns chancellor

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c4180 (Published 02 August 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4180
  1. Lynn Eaton
  1. 1London

    The United Kingdom’s coalition government needs to look beyond the short term and start considering the longer term implications of any cuts in science research budgets, warns an influential committee of MPs.

    Andrew Miller, Labour MP and chairman of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, has criticised chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne’s timetable for the proposed spending review in the autumn, which will look at spending cuts across the board, including medical research.

    In a letter to the chancellor dated 27 July Mr Miller warns: “The timetable does not sit well with the parliamentary calendar.” It requires a response by August, he said, and he expressed surprise that the select committees have not explicitly been asked to “contribute to the exercise.”

    He draws heavily on a report the committee published in March 2010, under the Labour government, where his predecessor put the case for protecting spending on science and technology.

    That report cited a 2008 report from the Academy of Medical Sciences, Wellcome Trust, and Medical Research Council showing that every £1 invested in public or charitable research for cardiovascular disease between 1975 and 1992 had produced a string of benefits that were equivalent to £0.39 a year in perpetuity.

    The same report, Medical Research: What’s it Worth? (www.brunel.ac.uk/385/other/TAP825EconomicBenefitsReportFULLWeb.pdf), showed that every £1 extra spent on public medical research led to an increase in drug industry research and development spending of between £2.20 and £5.10.

    “We agree with the former committee that reductions in science investment would be both counterintuitive and counterproductive,” wrote Mr Miller. “Much good progress would be lost and the size of the reductions to science is unlikely to make a significant dent in the deficit.

    “We consider that the reductions in science spend may yield short-term savings at the expense of long-term damage to the UK science base which would be very difficult to recover from quickly.”

    He suggests that the model in Canada, where cuts that had to be made in the 1990s were moderate and were speedily reversed once finances allowed, is the least damaging approach.

    Mr Miller argues that continued investment is essential to maintain the country’s standing internationally. The UK’s target for science resources is to invest 2.5% of gross domestic product by 2014, which compares with 3% in the United States. Even without any further cuts the UK is currently unlikely to make its much lower target.

    If other countries believed that science in the UK was suffering because of cuts it would make it a less attractive place for academics to work, he added. As a result it would become less attractive for students contemplating higher education.

    “With all the work that has gone into increasing the demand for science places within higher education, it would be an enormous waste of past effort and future potential were reductions to be visited upon the sector,” Mr Miller said.

    The Times Higher Education Supplement reported this week that Mr Miller, who began his working life as a laboratory technician at Portsmouth Polytechnic, had been “astonished” that the government had reserved the chairmanship of the committee for a Labour MP but said he hoped this did not imply that science was not a key priority for the government (www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=412762&c=1).

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4180

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