Frontline specialists say decline in publicly funded science affects whole economy


Frontline specialists in Prospect survey say decline in publicly funded science is affecting whole economy

More than 35% 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 wide-ranging survey of members working in R&D across the public and private sectors. Prospect represents 50,000 specialists in science, engineering and technology.

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

In 2015, 81% of civil servants, three-quarters of those in other public bodies, and 45% 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% in the civil service (compared to 41% in 1999) and 49% 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.”

Other key findings

  • Overall, 14% of respondents reported that they had been asked to tailor research conclusions to suit a customer’s preferred outcome, including 19% from the civil service.
  • Overall, respondents were pessimistic about career prospects in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), with 47% 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%) would consider moving to a different employer, and of these, 80% are looking for opportunities outside science.
  • 64% of respondents reported specialist skills shortages, with those in the public sector identifying an acute lack of IT and software specialists, and those in the private sector citing a shortage of electrical engineers and nuclear specialists.

Download a PDF of the June 2015 survey results

Download a PDF of the November 1999 survey report

For further information contact:

Sue Ferns, Prospect deputy general secretary, tel 020 7902 6639 (w); 07803 898708  (m); email [email protected]


Penny Vevers, Prospect communications officer, tel: 020 7902 6606 (w); 07713 511710 (m); email [email protected]