In a week that has seen the government department for energy face cuts and a partial reasoning for the badgers cull is due to the expense of vaccines. This article looks at how the economic cuts are impacting the development of British science and its impact on society.
The UK spends approximately 3% of the global total of research and development funds, yet is home to 4% of the world’s researchers which contribute to 6% of published papers.
All that has been cut has been and now the further cuts will compromise the future of not only British society but British Science.
Yet this week the department of energy voluntarily signed up to further cost cutting measures as part of Mr Osborne’s deficit reduction plan. Whilst many cuts since the government have been necessary the question of further cuts is “is there anything left to cut?”. A bit like cutting your essay when you are over the word limit. The first time you read it there are plenty words and phrases to concisely rephrase, not only helping you avoid unnecessary score deductions from exceeding the word count but which also improve the overall output of the piece. However as more and more words have to be cut the content and quality becomes compromised. This is the fear with the current round of curs facing the science and environment budgets. All that has been cut has been and now the further cuts will compromise the future of not only British society but British Science.
Recent cuts are leaving the UK lagging behind. Fellow G8 countries spend an average of 2.1% of their GDP on research and development compared to the UK’s 1.7%. These cuts are forcing the prioritisation of projects based on their likelihood of success, cost to run and commercial viability. This leaves many projects with insufficient funds because there is more research to do before the vital breakthrough. The only alternative source of funds from the generosity of the public and private sector donations.
Science is expensive, having just finished my dissertation I realise that. With each lab in the NOC containing thousands of pounds of equipment and some specialist labs containing equipment worth upwards of tens of thousands, science is not cheap. Despite the high costs when a discovery is made the financial gain is often significantly larger. For example the discovery of Teflon which was accidently discovered in 1938. Used because of its non-stick properties in everything ranging from pans to pipes to chemical containers, ammunition and space exploration. Its discovery is fundamental to the basis of so many of products and industries that the initial cost of discovery is miniscule in comparison, even when you include the cost of the initial experiment which was researching refrigerants.
Why is science and environment funding so key to the UK? Aside from reducing deaths and serious illnesses to the local populations it is a key economic driver. Innovations in science and technology reportedly lead to the 63% of the UK’s growth from between 2000 and 2008. This equates to multi millions of pounds going into the UK economy, significant employment opportunities and an overall improved quality of life.
The lack of funding has contributed to the one of the UK governments’ most controversial decision yet. The badger cull. The current badger cull has been described as the most feasible balance between cost and benefit. Whilst not solely down to cost the ideal solution of vaccinating cattle is expected to take up to ten years to develop even with current funding and this is deemed simply too long to wait. Campaigners opposing the cull suggest a badger vaccination which has already been developed yet the government prefers the results published in the Randomised Badger Cull Trial which concluded a cull to be more effective. This is despite knowledge that culling a population is unsustainable for its continuing future and the reintroduction costs of badgers into an area is far more costly than simply waiting a few years till the best solution has been developed, after all farmers have lived with it so long, will a few more years really have a major significant difference.
Yet despite cuts in some areas the UK government has recently just found the funds to send Tim Peake into space at a cost of £16 million in the hope of inspiring future generations to become involved in science and technology. However surely this action is in vain if there are not the facilities required because of budget cuts. It also poses an ethical question “is inspiring future astronauts more important than solving the problems on the planet we live on and the illnesses we suffer from?”, and how are the next generation of astronauts going to get there – will the government always be willing to pay for space men? Either way this story demonstrates the need for funds to be invested in the sector not only to research but also to inspire. Yet in a contradictory movement the UK government has asked the departments to find a further 10% savings from the already reduced budgets in order to aid the reduction of the deficit.
The future of the UK economy hangs in a delicate balance, yet the cuts now to these departments will go a lot deeper then reducing the deficit. They are significantly impacting our future both in terms of the employment, innovation and health of our society and ecosystems.