How will the Queen’s speech affect chemistry in the UK?

Today in the UK parliament officially reopened, with the Queen’s speech being used to set out the government’s new plans. But, with the flurry of new bill and law changes, how will this affect the chemical sciences here?

Luckily, the Royal Society of Chemistry have explained it all for us here. I’ll combine their useful insight with some of my own personal opinions.

There will be a big effort made into the deregulation of higher education in the UK, which may help reduce the red tape involved in the sector, but removing caps of student numbers and giving universities more flexibility is risky business, and may affect the credibility and efficiency of chemistry degrees. I’m sure many of you have heard of the new Teaching Excellence Framework, which sounds good on paper, but anyone familiar with the analogous Research Excellence Framework will know how time-consuming and, frankly, ineffective this can be, and I’m concerned more time will be dedicated to box-ticking exercises than providing good quality teaching.

Luckily, it seems like the government are listening to the concerns raised about the TEF, and will be piloting the scheme before enforcing it on all universities. A big concern among current and prospective students is that good TEF results will allow universities to continue raising tuition fees. This might be off-putting to potential chemistry undergraduates, and we might see numbers start to drop.

The good news is that it looks like research funding is going to be protected and still decided by peer review. This should mean that funding still reaches chemists who really deserve it.

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UK Science Budget Protected in Real Terms

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Scientists all over the UK have been dreading yesterday’s spending review – but it turns out we needn’t have been quite so worried.

Chancellor George Osbourne yesterday announced that science funding will be protected in real terms, with £5 billion being allocated to health research and development, including programmes to battle malaria and dementia, over £1 billion funding for aerospace and automotive technologies, and a £250 million nuclear research programme. There is also going to be a much needed review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), to try and simplify the system and ensure funding is based on excellence. £400 million has also been set aside for the ‘Northern Powerhouse investment fund’ to boost transport, art and sciences in the north.

Prof. Dominic Tildesley, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, is ‘delighted’ by the review, stating that ‘it is hugely encouraging to see our science base recognised as a vital part of the infrastructure needed to build a growing, knowledge-based economy’.

However, while scientists are relieved budgets haven’t been cut, as feared, there is a continued concern that the UK are lagging behind other countries around the world, in terms of the percentage of our budget spent on research. Indeed, this year the UK was found to spend below 0.5% of our GDP on research – putting us last in the G8. There is the risk that this increase won’t offset inflation in coming years, and this percentage could drop even further.

Furthermore, departments which are significantly linked to science, such as the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and the Home Office, have received cuts, which may bring about some problems for research.

Although it is encouraging to see the present government keeping science budgets steady, it is still concerning that we lag behind so many other countries, and we’re still at risk of losing our strong R&D reputation.

After the long wait, we’re relieved by the news, but not overjoyed. Time will tell how effective this new budget will be for the immediate future of science in the UK.

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UK at risk of losing it’s ‘science superpower’ status

The UK government needs to commit to spend more on scientific research and development over the long term if we have any chance of retaining our ‘superpower’ status amongst our competitors around the world, according to a report published by the House of Commons science and technology committee this month.

With the government’s spending review being due later this month, many scientists around the country are concerned that the science budget is going to suffer, and this report insists we will fall behind if this happens. The report states that cuts in spending “put UK competitiveness, productivity and high-value jobs at risk”, and that more needs to be done for us to reach the EU target of 3% of the GDP going into science R&D investment.

The future is looking very uncertain at the moment, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer convincing the Treasury, local governments and departments of transport and environment to agree to 30% budget cuts, and the fear is science funding will be the next in the firing line.

The UK has been holding its own in recent times, but if funding is cut, this may soon change, and we will begin to lose our credibility as a centre of technology and innovation if this happens. We have so much potential for great scientific discovery and development, and it could be catastrophic if funding causes this to crumble. It’s not only in our interest as scientists to protect R&D in this country, but as members of the British public. I hope George Osborne thinks very carefully before he decides the fate of science funding for all of us.

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Let Our Scientists Talk to Media

This article on the New Scientist website points out the added difficulty researchers are faced with now that the UK government have made it even harder for them to engage with the media. Now, scientists working within government-funded institutions will have to gain permission from their minister before being allowed to speak to journalists. All this extra red tape will make it harder for science and research to be communicated effectively with the public.

Experiences in Canada, where a similar rule has already been enforced, suggests that the government can now suppress the release of certain scientific information, denying the public knowledge that may sway their opinions.

Although it isn’t obvious at the moment what degree of impact this change will have, there is worry among the scientific community that the openness and honesty both scientists and the public crave will be hampered by meddlesome ministers who want to keep certain information under wraps. In order for society to progress and for the public to be fully informed before making political decisions, current research must be communicated to the wider community. To censor our discoveries is not a good idea.

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Scientific advice – Crisis counsellors!

This article on the Nature News website discusses the pressures of scientific advisers to governments during crisis situations, such as the Icelandic volcano eruption of 2010, which sent Europe into chaos. It’s an interesting snapshot into what is happening behind the headlines and TV announcements we’re all bombarded with at the time.

The article gives a glimpse into what immediate actions such advisers must take during such frantic situations, and how they must input their knowledge to the government so that the correct actions can be taken. It’s a side of science we don’t always think about as we go through our academic lives, but governments around the world are always in need of experts who can quickly meet to decide on immediate responses to what could be catastrophic events.

Indeed, the article discusses the BP oil disaster in the US, and how a cautious team of scientists found it difficult to deal with, due to misinformation from the government and BP, and disagreement amongst experts. Scientists disagreed over the amount of oil leaking every day, leading to great delays in the leak being stopped.

It’s an interesting walk through our recent history of disaster management, and highlights how difficult it can be to efficiently coordinate governments and scientists in order to firstly fully understand the issue, and then to remedy it. It would seem that there’s still work to be done to allow this to go more smoothly in the future, and hopefully scientists and politicians alike can learn from the mistakes made in the past.

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News: How the Shutdown will Affect U.S Science

I’m sure many of you are aware of today’s government shutdown in the U.S.A. Because of congress being unable to decide on a budget for the next year, federal agencies have been forced to shut down until the matter is resolved. Unfortunately, this includes bodies in overseeing science funding and research, and so this shutdown could have disastrous effects on U.S science.

This article on the Nature website goes into detail about how the situation has affected scientists in the U.S, and what it could mean for their future and the future of their research.

It is a very serious situation. Government scientists have been told to stay at home without pay, grants aren’t being processed and research is being abandoned until further notice, which could mean valuable experiments are ruined. This could have terrible consequences for vital healthcare research into the treatment of diseases, as clinical trials come to a sudden halt.  Furthermore, studies into influenza will be put on hold just as the flu season is about to begin in America.

Government phones and e-mails have been taken out of service, leaving scientists unable to carry out work at home.

A NASA mission to study the atmosphere on Mars could be delayed until 2016 if the shutdown leads to its November launch window being missed. NASA have already shutdown their communications with the public, and won’t be contactable until the government resolves the issue.

Research in the U.S.A has already had to survive funding cuts imposed by the government, and the fate of many research groups was already unknown. Scientists in every country spend a great deal of their time desperately trying to churn up enough funding to keep their research going, and if this shutdown doesn’t end soon, it could spell certain disaster for U.S Science and the loss of important studies and results for the science community as a whole.

I’ll keep you posted!

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