Science in the United Kingdom: Sailing in Stormy Seas

Britain’s scientists and technologists met the government’s spending review with cautious relief— and questions.


image(Left) David Willetts, minister for universities and science. (Right) Vince Cable, secretary of state for business, innovation and skills.

The axe that had been poised above science budgets in the United Kingdom finally completed its descent in December 2010. Just before Christmas, the government's Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), led by Business Secretary Vince Cable, announced how it would be allocating public funding for the areas under its purview, including science, research and higher education, until 2015.

The announcement brought some welcome clarity for Britain's scientists, who had been unsure of exactly how much trouble they were in.

Since the previous October, they had worked in the shadow of another announcement: The United Kingdom's coalition government is to cut public spending by $129 billion over five years, a target variously considered ambitious, audacious or ruinous. The annual $7.3billion for core science and research had been frozen in cash terms and ring-fenced for the spending period. In other words, it is protected from the severe cuts that are under way elsewhere but left at the mercy of inflation.

"Despite the considerable pressure on public spending, we have delivered stable funding," said Universities and Science Minister David Willetts. "A ring-fence around science and research programs, including higher education research, will provide stability and certainty."

The science community could at least appreciate the sentiment. "There were genuine fears that the science budget could have been reduced by anything between 25 and 40 percent," commented Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics. "As things transpired, BIS had its total budget reduced by 25 percent but the science budget remained flat, which was a welcome relief."

But questions about implementation remain. A BIS drive to find annual efficiency savings of $519 million was welcomed, but Cable's off-the-cuff remark—in which he stated that "forty-five percent of research grants were going to research that was not of excellent standard"—caused consternation. (Cable backtracked, but not soon enough to calm the hornets' nest.) Some researchers think the government's numbers don't yet add up.

"Essentially science in the United Kingdom is standing still, as cuts will have to be made to certain projects," said Main. "Available capital will be reduced by around 40 percent over the period, which means less money available to central resources such as the Central Laser Facility. Researchers, particularly those working on blue-skies or less fashionable areas, will find it harder to secure grant funding."

For photonics, the signs are hopeful. Alastair Wilson, director of photonics at the Electronics Sensors Photonics Knowledge Transfer Network (ESP KTN), believes that photonics companies can come through the buffeting in good shape: "There are still many research and innovation programs available, and ESP KTN aims to make sure that those looking for funding know where to find it," he said.


imageThe first astronomical adaptive optics system on the U.K.'s William Herschel Telescope uses an artificial laser guide star.

One significant source is the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), the public body tasked with promoting innovation in selected key areas. "The TSB recently completed a funding competition centered on Technology-Inspired Collaborative Research and Development, where $28 million was available," noted Wilson. "The KTN worked hard to get photonics companies involved, and we are hopeful that many will obtain projects and funding. Photonics has historically been well funded by the United Kingdom's Research Councils and government technology programs, and now the TSB competitions are providing similar support. So there are still opportunities out there."

A new headline initiative is the TSB's plan for a network of elite technology and innovation centers, backed by $320 million over the next four years. With an eye on precedents such as Germany's Fraunhofer Institutes, the new centers will work in partnership with universities and businesses.

"They will bridge an important gap, giving innovative firms access to facilities and technical expertise, enabling them to undertake essential development work, which can often be beyond the capability of individual businesses," said Willetts, who will be driving the program forward.

The proposal behind the elite centers was first drafted for the previous government, and it was welcomed by OSA Past President Sir Peter Knight, among others. Now Wilson expects the photonics community to be fully involved. "The first center is to be focused on high value manufacturing, and it is being fast-tracked," he said. "Laser materials processing technologies will have a central role to play."

British science is also tied inextricably to decisions made elsewhere in Europe. The European Union (EU) has supported photonics research for many years through its research Framework Programmes, currently nearing the end of its FP7 iteration, but here too the watchword is efficiency.

"Like the Member States, the EU should ensure that resources are invested in a smart way, aimed squarely at boosting growth through innovation," said Jonathan Todd, spokesperson for the European Commission's Digital Agenda initiative. "The EU must lead by example. It is not just what you spend, but how you spend it."

The EU has adopted its own economic reform package, named Europe 2020, which aims to see three percent of the continent's overall GDP invested in R&D by the end of the decade. Member states will set their own national targets to fit in with the broader goal.

This makes for a potentially complex picture. Todd noted that "Spain and to some extent the United Kingdom are keeping their R&D budgets stable, despite deep cuts elsewhere. Germany and France are actually increasing their investments in research and education, by $16 billion and $29 billion, respectively."

But photonics has already won the battle for recognition at the highest European levels. Photonics was adopted as one of the European Commission's Key Enabling Technologies in 2009, and a high-level expert group is developing policy recommendations for a common European strategy.

Similarly, Europe 2020 recognizes solid-state lighting as an essential element in future growth and intends to put forward measures to support rapid adoption of the technology, especially in public procurement.

All good news for photonics. As Todd noted, "A strong national base is needed to succeed at the European and global level, but rarely does a single country have sufficient resources to be competitive on the world scale. National activities and policies are increasingly designed and operated from a transnational perspective, with cross-border cooperation."

The UK's photonics sector already knows this to be true, according to ESP KTN's Wilson, who believes that U.K. companies must now keep European opportunities in mind.

"In the past the United Kingdom has perhaps been less prominent in such programs than it should be, but knowing more about what is available in Europe and getting involved in European programs will be valuable," he said. "Companies and researchers may be used to a certain way of getting funds for innovation, but they will have to move out of their comfort zones."

Tim Hayes is a freelance writer based in the United Kingdom who specializes in optics and photonics.

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Science in the United Kingdom: Sailing in Stormy Seas

Britain’s scientists and technologists met the government’s spending review with cautious relief— and questions.

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