Science and the Chancellor’s Spending Round 2015-2016


George Gideon Oliver Osborne MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Second Lord of the Treasury of the United Kingdom

On the 26th of July the Chancellor George Osborne announced in his spending review for 2015-2016 that public funding of science would remain flat at about £4.6bn per year. This figure has been held flat since 2011.

Scientific discovery is first and foremost an expression of the relentless human search to know more about our world, but it’s also an enormous strength for a modern economy,

George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer

The science minister said the following;

This settlement reflects the vital contribution that science, innovation and higher education make to the UK economy. Increasing capital funding for science and universities will underpin our ambitious industrial strategy, ensure our brightest minds can commercialise their ideas and support the knowledge that drives growth.

The science minister David Willetts

At a glance

  • Day-to-day science spend to remain at £4.6bn
  • Capital investment to rise from £0.6bn to £1.1bn
  • Capital increase to rise with inflation to 2020-21
  • Additional £185m for Technology Strategy Board
  • £100m/yr available to partner with private industry
  • £100m/yr to support innovative UK businesses

Some responses

The announcement that the current science budget will be maintained at £4.6 billion is a welcome recognition of the importance of science as an engine for future growth, but it needs to be noted that inflation has already substantially eroded the value of funding for science in the UK, by 2-3% per annum since 2010’s flat cash settlement.

Professor Sir Peter Knight, President IOP

You can read the full response from the Institute of Physics by following the link below.

In recent years science has suffered, as maintaining investment means a real terms cut due to inflation, but in the context of cuts elsewhere, science has been relatively protected Today’s announcement should be seen as a foundation for a long term strategy of increased investment. At present our economic competitors are outspending us in science but are not outperforming us.

Prof. Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society

You can read the full response from the Royal Society by following the link below.

UK science spending to remain ‘flat’, BBC NEWS

Response to Spending Round 2015-16
, The Institute of Physics

Chancellor champions science The Royal Society

Plants can do mathematics?

flag of walesProfs. Howard and Smith A team from the John Innes Centre report in e-Life journal, that plants can do basic mathematics [1]. The calculation allows them to use up their starch reserves at a constant rate so that they run out almost precisely at dawn.

This is the first concrete example in a fundamental biological process of such a sophisticated arithmetic calculation.

Professor Martin Howard from the John Innes Centre

The maths they can do
Plants feed themselves during the day light hours by convert carbon dioxide into sugars and starch. This is the well known process of photosynthesis. Once the sun has set, plants use their store of starch to prevent starvation.

The scientists at the John Innes Centre have shown that plants make precise adjustments to their rate of starch consumption. These adjustments are made so that the starch store lasts until dawn even if the night comes unexpectedly early or the size of the starch store varies.

Mathematical models show that the amount of starch consumed overnight is calculated by arithmetic division.

The plants have mechanisms to measure the size of the starch stores and can use their internal “body clock” to estimate the length of time until dawn. The size of the starch store is then divided by the length of time until dawn to set the rate of starch consumption. It turns out that by dawn, around 95% of starch is used up.

[1] Scialdone et al. Arabidopsis plants perform arithmetic division to prevent starvation at night, eLife 2013;2:e00669.
DOI: 10.7554/eLife.00669

Plants do sums to get through the night JIC News

Help the IOP make the case for science


Members of the Institute of Physics have received an email letter from Beth Taylor, Director of Communications and International Relations, Institute of Physics, about the run up to the UK government’s spending review. I have reproduced the letter below with the permission from the Institute of physics.

The letter

Dear Member,

In the lead-up to the Government’s spending review, due to be announced on 26 June, IOP has been working along with many other organisations to support the case for increased investment in science and innovation.

Among other initiatives, we have produced a series of case studies which demonstrate the value of our research to the UK economy, showing how breakthroughs come to impact on our daily lives. Physics: Transforming Lives was launched at a reception at the House of Commons on 6 June, and is available from our website.

IOP has also responded to a consultation on the spending review from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, urging the government to commit to increased investment in science and innovation as a proven source of economic growth.

We welcome the emphasis placed by the Chancellor in recent statements on the importance of investment in science, and believe this government does recognise the return it offers. As many of our competitors continue to increase research funding, the UK needs a science and research budget that grows in real terms, and that balances support between curiosity-driven research and investment in innovation, if we are to retain our strength in research and promote growth in science and technology-based businesses.

Institute members can support us in getting this message across via their MPs –by writing to them directly or attending a constituency surgery – either requesting their support for science before the spending review, or asking them to react to it afterwards.

Yours sincerely,

Beth Taylor
Director of Communications and International Relations,
Institute of Physics

For non-members
Even if you are not a member of the Institute of Physics you too can still join in the effort to support British science. Write to your MP to make sure they get the message; Science is vital to our nation.

Poor numeracy skills in Welsh schools

flag of wales Pupils in half of Wales’ secondary schools and 40% of primary schools have weak numeracy skills, according to Estyn (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education and Training in Wales).

Calculators at the ready!
Estyn state that pupils rely on calculators to do basic arithmetic and so struggle to do harder calculations.

In my experience teaching foundation year students at university level this phenomena is by no means restricted to Welsh, or even British students. Too often pupils reach for the calculator and do not understand the calculation required.

For instance, on more than one occasion have I had a student “call me out” saying that my numerical answer is wrong as it does not agree with their calculator. They can struggle with the fact that they have simply entered the numbers in wrong! This is usually a problem with doing longer calculations in one step and placing brackets in the wrong place.

This has happened when doing physics based questions where we can use our physical intuition to dismiss the incorrect answers. For example, the classical electron radius cannot be of the order 1cm, no matter what your calculator says!

Hey, but I can read good!

We know that many schools have not given as much attention to numeracy as they have done for literacy, but it is vital that schools have clear plans for developing numeracy skills.

Chief inspector Ann Keane

There seems to be a strange situation in the UK where by it is okay to be innumerate, but to be literate is shameful.

Can you imagine ever at a party saying “I wrote a book” only to get the response “I cannot read”? It happens if you tell people you are interested in mathematics!

Well, to read and write are essential life skills, so why not basic mathematics?

Hopefully the state of mind of the country on this issue will change. We now hope that the Welsh government will act on this report and find ways to engage pupils to help develop their mathematics skills.

The report
Numeracy in key stages 2 and 3: a baseline study (opens pdf)

Numeracy: Pupils struggle with sums in Wales says Estyn (BBC News)

The lifestyle of scientists; An ongoing study

Katarzyna Trzonek, a masters student at Łódź university under the supervision of prof. Anna Matuchniak-Krasuska is working on a thesis comparing the image of scientists as portrayed on television with real scientists. She has decided to look at the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” and see how the portrayal of scientist there compares with reality.

Are we all just like Sheldon Cooper?

Many of the images created by the general media of scientists is not very flattering. In films for example, scientists are usually presented as “nerds” and socially inept or even worse they are the evil antagonist!

In part this must be due to the public awareness of science and indeed scientists. Science drives the technological advances of our modern world, but also it shapes our culture via the wider understanding of the Universe science creates. Science research is of social and cultural importance.

If the general public is not aware of the role of science and scientists in our modern world then how can we blame them for not recognising the largely false image in the media?

The Survey
Trzonek is conducting an online survey aimed at American scientists focusing on the lifestyles, as this appears to be the most difficult information to find. If you qualify, then please take the survey by following the link below.

Please note that the survey is confidential and should not take more than 15mins or so to complete.

If you have any further questions then they should be directed to Trzonek ( rather than me.

Trzonek’s thesis should be interesting. The images of scientists that I see on television are not usually accurate, but I see some familiarity with my own environment. A such I await her analysis and will post here about it in due course.

The lifestyle of scientists

Physics and our daily lives

Physicsl The Institute of Physics, together with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, have prepared a series of case studies entitled Physics: Transforming lives. (Follow the link below)

In the document several sectors are reviewed showing how physics research has been instrumental in developing every day technologies.

Physics: Transforming Lives (Opens PDF)

Importance of physics stressed to the UK’s politicians IOP NEWS