Science and Innovation strategy: RAS response
The UK government published its new Science and Innovation strategy on Wednesday 17 December. The new document, “Our Plan for Growth: science and innovation” includes a number of positive announcements and restatements of support for projects in astronomy and geophysics, such as the capital funding for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio observatory and the Polar Research Ship, and the more recent support for the European Space Agency to develop the ExoMars mission.
The Society welcomes these, along with the statement of support for peer review in investment decisions; the importance of international collaboration, the new targets for the recruitment of maths and physics teachers, the new postgraduate loans scheme, the recognition of the success of the Gaia and Rosetta missions and the opportunities presented by Major Tim Peake’s flight to the International Space Station next year.
More generally, one of the long-standing concerns of the scientific community has been the low level of public (and private) funding for science compared with other EU and OECD countries. The new strategy explicitly addresses this, with a pledge to examine resource spending in the 2015 Spending Review. The Society welcomes this commitment and the overarching statement that policies for science and innovation should not detract from the importance of fundamental research being carried out for its own sake.
International collaboration, including UK leadership in European scientific programmes such as Horizon 2020, also has a high prominence. The Society endorses this view and the pledge to use the UK presidency of the EU to support this activity.
The RAS however remains concerned about several fundamental areas, including the lack of commitment to protect the science ‘ring fence’. This flat cash budget has already been eroded significantly since 2010 and even a low inflation environment will have a serious impact on purchasing power in the years ahead. If this policy continues, the inevitable outcome will be a reduction in the resources (not least postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers) needed to exploit scientific data. This could greatly hinder the UK’s ability to reap the full benefits of the capital investment in scientific projects. And although there is recognition of the need to recruit the most talented people from across the globe, though there seems no prospect of a loosening of the restrictions on immigration that can make such recruitment almost impossible in practice.
President of the Royal Astronomical Society Prof Martin Barstow commented: “I am delighted to see that the Government so clearly recognises the importance of scientific research, including the ‘blue skies’ sciences that are so important to the RAS and our Fellows and which are so valued by the wider public. There has though been a hollowing out of the resource budget needed to make the most of our involvement and investment in major scientific programmes, something that will need to be tackled if the UK is to remain a world player in research. As RAS President I will be pressing the Government to tackle this in next year’s Spending Review, in order to deliver the secure environment that will allow our researchers to flourish.”