The UK Comprehensive Spending Review 2015: Opportunities for heritage science

By Scott Allan Orr

Heritage science in the United Kingdom is carried out by a complex network of public institutions and the private sector. On the surface, the Comprehensive Spending Review 2015 could be seen as a reason for optimism considering the heritage science funding landscape. The Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne stressed in the House of Commons that one of the “best investments” the government could make is in the country’s “extraordinary arts, museums, heritage, media and sport”.

Image of Parliament

The 2015 Comprehensive Spending Review carried out by HM Treasury focussed on all aspects of public spending. Published in Autumn 2015, the review is relevant to heritage science as it impacts on research funding for academic institutions; funding and participation opportunities of private-sector firms; programme expenditure for heritage related arms-length bodies; operating budgets for museums and galleries and opportunities for public engagement:

  • A reduction of overall DCMS (Department for Culture, Media & Sport) expenditure by 5%, but 20% administration cut This may affect or at least slow down the Department’s capacity to deliver its programmes
  • Science budget to rise in real terms to £7bn, despite overall BIS (Department for Business, Innovation & Skills) expenditures decreasing by 17%. This could signify good news for research funding
  • A small increase in cash terms of approximately £10m per annum for the four years up to 2019/20 for Arts Council England. This could deliver enhanced support to non-national cultural institutions thereby improving their capacity to engage with universities.
  • Free entry to the National Museums and Galleries to be maintained. This could mean better opportunities for public engagement

The structures and strategic initiatives of DCMS and BIS may shift in response to changes in their respective administrations and overall expenditure. The departments might consider how administration could be adapted to optimise the allocation of programme funds by encouraging collaboration between organisations from different sectors but with similar objectives such as heritage institutions and universities. In addition, both should collaborate more closely to optimise their investments in infrastructure and capacity building which will call for more collaboration.

In some cases collaboration between UK Research Councils have been agreed upon as joint ventures, one example being the successful Science and Heritage Programme between AHRC and EPSRC. Cross-council programmes have been co-ordinated by the current overseeing body ‘Research Councils UK’ or one of the research councils to enable bi/tri-lateral projects between Councils, such as Living with environmental change.

The recent Nurse Review of the research councils calls for the creation of a new independent body called ‘Research UK (RUK)’ to oversee the activities of the Research Councils. RUK would offer Ministers an opportunity to discuss funding directly with scientists, in return for science having a more prominent role in government and society. The proposed overseeing body should support and enable cross-disciplinary research straddling the remits of multiple research councils—such as heritage science—that does not fit easily within the current mono disciplinary organisational structures. Research UK might create streamlined pathways for interdisciplinary projects, without compromising the disciplinary excellence the Research Councils have achieved in their current form.

The Spending Review in 2010 left many departments and public bodies expecting further significant cuts in 2015; however, many were relieved to find that operating budgets were not reduced as much as some had predicted. This was in part due to the strong evidentiary arguments on the socio-economic value of arts and culture made by the arts and heritage sectors over the past five years, such as that produced by Arts Council England in 2014 and numerous reports by Historic England. The heritage sector should continue to develop and maintain a strong evidence base on its significant social and economic impacts which can be used to develop appropriate arguments for the need for a strong infrastructure base for heritage science to support research and engagement opportunities in the UK and to secure its leadership abroad.


This text was developed through discussion with Professor May Cassar (Director; UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, and the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering for Arts, Heritage, and Archaeology), who is currently conducting research as part of an AHRC Impact Fellowship examining the public benefit, cultural and economic impact and growth prospects of heritage science research with the aim of creating a heritage science innovation systems framework.

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