Robert Ashcroft
December 2014

What the Autumn Statement means for environmental scientists

Over the past few years, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has been keen to highlight investment in science as a “personal priority” (as reiterated in his Autumn Statement speech).  With the publication of the 2014 Autumn Statement, this blog analyses what these changes mean for the environment and environmental scientists.  Many key environmental issues are conspicuous by their absence in this statement, but there have been important announcements made in several key areas.  Of course, it should be noted that although many of these announcements concern long-term programmes of investment, with a General Election in May the priorities of the next government may differ.

Science research and education
In this Autumn Statement, the Government has made several announcements which will have an impact on the higher education sector and also detailed further substantial proposed investment in science research facilities and infrastructure.

As well as the recently announced reversal of the government-imposed cap on undergraduate student numbers, in this statement the Chancellor has announced a new scheme to assist young people in funding postgraduate qualifications. This new initiative will provide government-backed loans of up to £10,000 to those under the age of 30 undertaking postgraduate study.  Given the proportion of environmental professionals who hold Masters degrees or higher qualifications (71% of IES members hold a postgraduate qualification), hopefully this initiative will make the sector more accessible to those from less privileged backgrounds.

The Government has also announced a £5.9 billion programme of investment in science research facilities. This includes a £2.9 billion ‘Grand Challenges’ fund, which amongst other projects will be investing in a new research facility in the North of England, the Sir Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials Research. This fund will also be investing in facilities for a ‘big data’ research centre, as well as research in energy security and innovation.

The Chancellor is very positive in this Autumn Statement about the potential of shale gas to contribute to UK energy security and deliver tax revenue. Nevertheless, this remains a highly contentious issue. A new £5 million fund has been set up to provide independent evidence directly to the public about the robustness of the existing regulatory regime regarding fracking. This seemingly reflects public concern about the planning process for fracking sites and should hopefully enable better public engagement in the policy process.

£31 million of funding has also been made available to set up sub-surface research test centres through the Natural Environment Research Council, which should contribute to our understanding of the issues surrounding both shale gas extraction and carbon capture and storage.

Tax adjustments are also announced to encourage investment in oil and gas extraction from the UK Continental Shelf.  The Chancellor seeks to promote further investment in the exploitation of this resource.

Brief mention is given to the UK’s commitment to low carbon energy; several recently approved wind energy developments are cited but no further investment is announced. The potential of a tidal lagoon power development in Swansea Bay is also mentioned, but again no investment is announced.

Flood protection
Reflecting the national interest in flood protection following last winter’s extensive flood events in various parts of the UK, investment in flood defences is given prominence in the statement.  £2.3 billion of investment over the next six years is announced, which will fund 1,400 flood defence schemes.  It is predicted that this will mean 300,000 homes are better protected by 2021. In order to promote private investment, it has also been announced that business contributions to flood defence schemes are tax deductible.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
It is announced that additional funding is being provided to maintain Kew Gardens until April 2015, following the extremely controversial cuts to the institution’s funding earlier this year. However, no mention is made of Kew’s funding beyond April.