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Where Does the UK’s Science Funding Go

science funding

where does the science funding go | interfocus

According to the SCImago Journal & Country Rank, the United Kingdom is the world’s third most influential nation in terms of scientific research and output. Trailing behind only the far larger nations of United States and China, the UK’s contribution to the science world is hugely significant, helping to progress important areas of study and understanding.

Both Governmental and private funding contribute towards the UK’s scientific output – with institutes all around the country battling for all-important cash injections. The allocation of funding is a hot topic for almost everybody involved in the sciences in any way; with so many worthy recipients, the decision regarding monetary distribution is controversial and convoluted in equal measure.

Accusations of favouritism in science funding have been thrown around for years, and are unlikely to fade away. Many believe their projects or institutes are routinely overlooked when bidding for funding because they are working on unglamorous projects or belong to less-romanticised schools/research teams.

In a bid to understand where the UK’s funding for the sciences currently goes, we are exploring the regions, disciplines and projects which receive the highest levels of funding.

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Government Contributions
The Government outlined a commitment to scientific research by pledging £1.1bn per year to the UK’s scientific infrastructure until 2021. This was outlined in the Allocation of Science and Research Funding 2015/16 guide. Published in 2014, this guide helped to alleviate the concern that the sciences would be amongst the most affected areas when anticipated public spending cuts were put into action.

The funding will come from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – whose total investment in the sciences reached £5.8bn in cash terms by the end of the Financial Year 2015/16. Since its inception in 2009, the BIS has been dedicated to encouraging economic growth.

With one eye on maintaining the UK’s position as a world leading force in a range of scientific fields and the other on keeping the purse strings tight; the Government has revealed plans to target investments which reap the largest rewards. The above guide states:

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“This continuing investment in our world-class research base will help us achieve our ambition to make the UK the best place in the world to do science and research.

“But with this continued Government commitment to our excellent UK research base, comes a challenge to ensure we gain maximum benefit from this investment. This means continuing to build on efficiencies, increasing collaboration to develop creative solutions to shared goals, and doing more to leverage business and charity funding. These are themes which run throughout these allocations.”


However, the guide does suggest there is a little room for scientific indulgence:

“We are also providing funding for our outstanding researchers to pursue curiosity driven research. We continue to fund the UK’s National Academies for this purpose. In addition, for the first time in 2015/16 we will be providing a funding allocation to the Academy of Medical Science, alongside its sister Academies.”

Haldane Principle
Utilising the Haldane Principle, the Government allocated budget for the sciences is based upon the advice of researchers and peer reviews rather than the opinions of politicians. This century-old principle remains a pivotal part of the Government’s scientific funding.

However, the Government did set out a few priority areas for science and research funding, determined by the potential to maximise the economic and social benefits of the research. The Government sought the advice from the following bodies, all of which offer high-level overviews of science and research:

The Allocations
The Government allocations to the sciences can be split into five distinct groups:

  • Research Councils
  • Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)
  • UK Space Agency
  • National Academies
  • Other Programmes

These allocations were divided as such:

funding allocations in science

Research Council Allocations
As demonstrated, research councils are receiving the lion’s share of the 2015/16 allocations – split across 10 different councils.

  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Medical Research Council (MRC)
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)1 Core Programme
  • NERC2 Antarctic Logistics and Infrastructure
  • Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)1 Core Programme
  • STFC2 International Subscriptions
  • STFC3 Cross-Council Facilities

These allocations were divided as such:

research council science funding

National Academies Allocations
The four national academies benefitting from the Government investment are:

  • Royal Society
  • British Academy
  • Royal Academy of Engineering
  • Academy of Medical Sciences

You might have noticed these institutions were all involved in the decision-making progress. Their allocations are divided as follows:

national academies funding

Other Programmes and Miscellanea
A few institutions and programmes which sit outside of the stated groups have also received funding. These are:

  • Science & Society
  • International
  • Newton Fund
  • Government Office for Science
  • Evidence & Evaluation
  • Alan Turing Institute

Their allocations are divided as follows:

other programmes funding

Regional Research Investment
The Research Councils UK (RCUK) is the body responsible for investing public money in research projects. Intending to help advance knowledge and generate ideas to encourage a productive economy, health society and a more sustainable world; the research council allocates millions of pounds every year to research teams throughout the UK.

Here is a regional breakdown of the research funding allocation for every financial year between 2005 and 2015.

Regional Spend (£K)

 *Medical Council of Research

Please find original figures here.

table of figures on science funding
  2014-15 2013-14 2012-13 2011-12 2010-11 2009-10 2008-09 2007-08 2006-07 2005-06
East 412,270 401,743 385,788 414,610 439,987 384,325 359,642 315,347 308,943 172,845
London 671,644 732,846 607,833 571,398 506,874 493,822 455,641 428,566 353,590 165,501
Midlands 264,152 213,529 209,959 216,563 207,194 205,126 194,101 172,653 151,657 113,104
North East 65,160 69,854 65,272 70,405 66,278 69,133 59,951 51,938 47,870 36,202
North West 197,851 196,567 155,783 162,240 160,795 171,172 161,490 160,855 147,775 96,892
South East 738,223 632,913 600,314 657,659 551,127 567,618 577,744 509,263 500,653 427,639
South West 189,490 167,580 134,391 136,263 125,823 118,637 105,116 93,892 82,472 62,669
Yorkshire & H/side 160,118 151,183 137,495 139,674 135,588 142,005 135,613 130,839 114,112 92,668
MRC* 413,945
England (Total) 2,698,908 2,566,215 2,296,835 2,368,812 2,193,666 2,151,838 2,049,298 1,863,353 1,707,072 1,581,465
Northern Ireland 20,650 20,146 17,522 17,638 18,343 19,975 17,000 12,424 9,918 7,558
Scotland 323,594 314,585 298,453 281,100 274,962 276,443 262,470 226,547 186,645 182,422
Wales 66,154 70,298 56,198 59,766 56,729 61,034 55,585 55,388 46,907 41,852
Total 3,109,308 2,971,244 2,669,007 2,727,317 2,543,699 2,509,291 2,384,354 2,157,713 1,950,544 1,813,295



Although these figures do not represent the total funding received from government and independent sources in each region, they provide a good indication of the areas which receive the highest levels of funding.

London and the South receive significantly higher levels of funding than the Midlands and the North. Every year over the last decade this pattern has remained the same. There are concerns this perceived uneven weighting of funding could inhibit the growth of research disciplines in the least-funded areas. With little financial impetus, the brightest minds of the Midlands and the North may be reluctant to stay close to home, venturing instead to the well-funded regions in London and the South. This could perpetuate the same pattern, and leave the Midlands and the North lagging further behind the South in terms of scientific contribution and significance.

A brighter point however, there is evidence that the level of funding has increased almost year-on-year in every region, demonstrating that funding for research is at least growing in line with inflation, if not ahead of inflation. With a severe global recession hitting during this period, it is a relief to see that public spending of research projects did not suffer significantly.

This provides encouragement for the research laboratories and teams seeking funding to start or continue vital projects. Hopefully this ongoing dedication to the sciences can help the UK retain its position as the world’s third largest contributor to the field.

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