Union survey shows R&D concern

Frontline specialists in Prospect survey say a decline in publicly funded science affects the whole economy.

More than a third of civil service members employed in research and development say half or more of their work is now commercially confidential, a survey by Prospect union has revealed.

The finding comes in a survey of members working in R&D across the public and private sectors. Prospect represents 50,000 specialists in science, engineering and technology.

In horticulture R&D, Defra privatised its plant health agency FERA in February with Capita taking over.

It contrasts with a union survey of civil servants at the turn of the millennium, when 23 per cent described half or more of their work as "commercial in confidence".

In 2015, 81 per cent of civil servants, three-quarters of those in other public bodies, and 45 per cent of those in the private sector stated that cuts in public funding have affected R&D across the economy over the last five years. All sectors have experienced significant staff reductions.

Over half of respondents considered that the expertise within their own organisation had declined in the last five years – including 60 per cent in the civil service (compared to 41 per cent in 1999) and 49 per cent employed in the private sector and other public bodies.

Sue Ferns, Prospect deputy general secretary, said: "Our research provides a stark illustration of the decline in publicly funded science.

"Privatisation, the reduction in government-sponsored research and skills shortages are long-standing trends. But they have accelerated with the spending cuts experienced in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis."

Ferns said successive governments had paid lip service to the importance of investing in R&D to put the economy on a sustainable footing. "Our survey shows that they have so far failed to deliver."

She added: "Twice as many civil servants are now telling us their work is commercially confidential compared to 15 years ago. The government must ensure that the rise of commercial contracts does not undermine the independent, quality advice that is the bedrock of good decision-making."

  • Overall, 14 per cent of respondents reported that they had been asked to tailor research conclusions to suit a customer’s preferred outcome, including 19 per cent from the civil service.
  • Overall, respondents were pessimistic about career prospects in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), with 47 per cent believing they do not have further opportunities to progress. Budget cuts were seen as the principle barrier to progression, followed by a flattening of organisational structures.
  • Just over a third (32 per cent) would consider moving to a different employer, and of these, 80 per cent are looking for opportunities outside science.
  • 64 per cent of respondents reported specialist skills shortages.

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