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Science and the Northern Powerhouse: Brexit and beyond

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The future of scientific research funding in Manchester

By Bridget Taylor

In his autumn statement last week, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced an increase of £ 2 billion a year to the £11 billion of public funding for science and technology research in the UK. However, as a proportion of the government’s total spending (around £700 billion a year), it is still small, and some kind of increase, in order to cushion the effects of a possible ‘Hard Brexit’, perhaps involving no access to the single market and restrictions on the movement of labour for the UK, could have been predicted.

Senior Lecturer in Science and Technology Policy at the University of Manchester Kieron Flanagan says that you can take a more cynical approach: “It is a relatively cheap way of being seen to invest in the future, in comparison to investment in transport or infrastructure.” He added, “It gives someone like George Osborne [in his role as architect of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’] plenty of quick and easy photo opportunities.”

Dr. Flanagan was speaking at the recent monthly Scibar event organised by MMU Engage, the Science Communication and Public Engagement Team for Manchester Metropolitan University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering. The event mainly focused on the current imbalance in scientific research funding, which is heavily weighted towards the ‘golden triangle’ – the universities of London, Oxford and Cambridge, all situated in the South East.

Dr Flanagan made a case for the North, stressing that Manchester has a proud tradition of scientific excellence, citing John Dalton, who pioneered the development of modern atomic theory, and James Prescott Joule, who discovered the relationship between heat and mechanical work. This excellence continues today, with Manchester science ranking consistently higher than the world average (based on the number of scientific papers that cite Manchester addresses), a situation which continues to improve.

However, the ‘golden triangle’s’ share of research funding is still growing. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the system which assesses the quality of the research in UK universities. The REF is then used to drive a funding formula which only serves to reproduce the same dynamic. If the university produces high quality research it will be awarded more funding. This means that those South East universities are now in a positive feedback loop where the better their research, the more funding they are given, and so the better their future research.

On the other hand, the results for competitively won grants are more evenly spread across the country, showing, according to Dr Flanagan,  that “the way research excellence is measured reveals a hidden industrial policy favouring the South East.” Further to this, industry and government have continued to move major scientific institutions southwards, such as the Diamond, the UK’s synchrotron, which was relocated from Cheshire to Oxfordshire in 2002.

There could be a change in the air, however, with investment in scientific research forming a key part of George Osborne’s promises to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’. One plan was to fund a ‘Crick Institute’ of the North (the new biomedical research institute in London), which has been concretely realised as the new Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials opening at the University of Manchester. Another fundamental aspect of the Northern Powerhouse idea is better transport links, which will help fragmented Northern scientific labour communities share their work more easily. Yet the rhetoric of the Northern Powerhouse has not produced many actual results, and another potential spanner in the works is the May government’s non-committal approach to the project; May has paid lip service to the idea, but possibly favours the West Midlands over a focus on Manchester.

Of course, a further threat to the future of scientific funding in Manchester is the possible impact of Brexit. There are fears in the scientific community over its ramifications, as the European Union provides 10% of scientific research funding to British universities. Leaving is also likely to negatively affect the ability of UK and continental European scientists to share their work, if free movement is restricted. Though if we take a broader perspective, Northern universities are undertaking world-class research, and their focus should not just be on European networks but on global scientific enterprises. However, they can only be part of those if there is a redistribution of resources.

Dr. Flanagan believes there is cause for optimism: “Brexit could provide us with a point of departure to address the issue of the funding imbalance in the UK. The idea that we currently have a geography-blind policy could be called into question’. He added, “There is everything to play for, the agenda is there, we [in Northern scientific communities] need to be driving things forward.”

MMU Engage hold a Scibar events every month. Their aim is to ‘grow awareness of the opportunities for students, staff and the public to be a part of science and engineering’. Dean Brookes and Amy Clow spoke to Humanity Hallows about the kind of events on offer: “As well as Scibar, we have the Prof Lecture on the last Thursday of every month. The last one we had was Martyn Amos, Director of the Informatics Research Centre School of Computing, Mathematics & Digital Technology, talking about crowds, but we get lecturers from all different areas of research.

“We also have a book club, which mainly seems to be about zombies, we take part in the science festival, and Senior Lecturer in Science Communication Sam Illingworth does a podcast every month.”

The team wanted to stress that students are very welcome at these events: “Holding Scibar here, at the Lass O’Gowrie, makes it more accessible. It’s a bit daunting for students to go into a university that’s not their own, we want to make it open to everyone.”

To find out about upcoming events visit the team’s Facebook page , follow them on Twitter @MMUEngage or visit the Manchester Metropolitan University website.

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Bridget Taylor

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