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Vince Cable warns of science funding cuts

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 08 September 2010

Business Secretary Vince Cable drops heavy hints that taxpayers' money for scientific research will be cut as part of the government's drive to reduce the deficit. Channel 4 News analyses the effect any cuts could have on the British economy.

As the Business Secretary Vince Cable signals cuts in science funding, there are fears the British economy could be damaged (Reuters)

Mr Cable said the government spent £6bn a year supporting science and research in the UK. In a speech, he did not give any indication of the size of the cuts ahead, but in an interview on the BBC Today programme, he dismissed speculation of a 35 per cent reduction as "way in excess of what we are talking about".

In his speech, Mr Cable said: "There is a school of thought which says that government commitment to science and technology is measured by how much money it spends. Money is important both for the quantity and quality. But it is an input, not an output, measure. The question I have to address is can we achieve more with less."

The Liberal Democrat MP added that research should be rationed by excellence, with mediocrity "screened out".

He talked about how other countries were investing in science - with the US doubling spending and the Chinese government increasing by a quarter the amount it allocates to science and technology - and posed the question: "How do we economise without damaging science?"

Research "crucial"
Mr Cable's speech coincided with a report in the Times newspaper, suggesting that ahead of next month's comprehensive spending review, the Medical Research Council (MRC) is considering plans to withdraw the £105m it spends every year on cancer. The MRC told Channel 4 News it was "too early to comment" on proposed cuts.

Cancer Research UK (CRUK), which is funded by donors rather than public money, said it could not be expected to fill the gap. The charity pointed to research suggesting that every pound of public money spent on medical research led to even more being spent by the private and charitable sectors - boosting Britain's national output.

This research was a one-year study, published in 2008 by the Health Economics Research Group and RAND Europe and commissioned by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.
Concentrating on two areas - cardio-vascular disease and mental health - it compared the benefits to the UK from taxpayer and charity-funded medical research with the cost of that research.

The conclusion argued that every pound invested in research in these two areas gave returns of 39p and 37p a year respectively "in  perpetuity".

Hilary Tovey, policy manager for CRUK, told Channel 4 News: "Medical research is crucial not only for the health of the nation, but also for the future health of the economy. The relationship between public sector funding and charitable funding creates an environment where you are attracting some of the best scientists from around the world - a very healthy partnership when you're talking about economic recovery.

"I think you have to be very careful about how you cut. The big concern is making cuts and feeling you can later repair the damage. It can take an awful long time to do this."

Ms Tovey added: "Suggesting that you shouldn't fund research that doesn't have commercial capability would be very worrying."

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) said government spending in these areas made up less than one per cent of its total budget and had proven benefits.

Imran Khan, director of CaSE, told Channel 4 News that his organisation had told the government that cutting spending on research and development would not help to reduce the deficit because it would scare off investors, who, "if they see favourable conditions abroad will be forced to look abroad".

Mr Khan added: "Private sector investment hinges on the public sector, but the government seems to be putting up barriers. At the moment, the UK is seen as a global leader in research and the effect of this could be to confine us in a lower league."

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