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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Scottish Scientists Relieved by No Vote

Last Thursday the UK and indeed people all over the world held their breath as the people of Scotland voted whether or not to go independent. It was reasonably close, but 55% of the population decided to remain in the UK – a decision which has pleased Scottish scientists, it seems.

This article by New Scientist gives us an insight into how the scientists of Scotland have reacted to such a possibly life-changing decision – and the overall feeling is one of relief. Many scientists in the country doubted the pledges of the Yes campaign to maintain the standards of Scottish research, and were concerned that access to funding would be considerably compromised by becoming independent.

Furthermore, there was a concern that good quality Scottish researchers would have been tempted to leave the country should independence be granted, taking their expertise away from the country and from the UK as a whole.

Two views of the whether the science in Scotland would have benefited from independence or not can be seen in this previous article from the website.

It seems like scientists from both Scotland and the rest of the UK can rest easy knowing that, for now at least, business can continue as usual, and no research has to be disrupted.

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Tid Bit: Alan Turing Institute to Be Set Up in Britain

 

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In yesterday’s budget, UK Chancellor George Osborne announced that an institute named after World War Two codebreaker Alan Turing will be set up in Britain, which will focus on new ways of collecting, organising and analysing large sets of data.

The facility will cost the government £42m over five years, and is part of a new £222m science package.

Alan Turing lived in Mr Osborne’s own constituency of Tatton, Cheshire, and was a brilliant mathematician whose work greatly helped Allied forces read German messages enciphered with the Enigma machine. His code-breaking efforts allowed the war to be ended sooner, saving thousand of lives.

Unfortunately, Turing was persecuted for his sexuality and, after being convicted of gross indecency, was chemically castrated in 1952. Following years of campaigning, however, he was granted a posthumous Royal pardon in December last year. Now, finally, his great work can be given the recognition it deserves, with the government hoping that this institute will lead the way in the use of so-called ‘big data’.

The government’s science package will also provide £106m to new centres for doctoral training, £55m for the development of cell therapy manufacturing and £19m for a Graphene Open Access Innovation Centre.

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