Under its drastic spending review the government has pledged to ring-fence funding for science and research signalling its recognition of the importance of keeping the UK a “world leader” on the scene.

The science community must have breathed a sigh of relief after the government said yesterday it is committed to supporting the highest value scientific research, and that it has set aside a protected cash-pot of £4.6 billion a year - to be maintained by the Department for Business - until the year 2014/15 to continue fuelling the sector.

The move means a real-terms cut of about 10%, but this is just a scratch compared to the deep cuts other areas are having to deal with, and the shortfall could be offset by £300 million of efficiency savings from within scientific organisations, said science minister David Willetts, according to the Independent.

In addition, Chancellor George Osborne also confirmed funding of £220 million over the next four years for the UK Centre for Medical Research Innovation, to ensure the Centre - a partnership between four of the world's leading biomedical research organisations: the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and University College London - can open its doors as planned in 2015.

Welcoming the move, Sir Paul Nurse, the Director-designate for UKCMRI, said the Centre will play “a central role in the national medical research endeavour in the decades to come”, through its work in understanding the basic biology underlying human health and discovering new ways to prevent and treat disease.

And the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry also applauded the government’s commitment to science and innovation.

“Scientific research is critical to securing future economic growth and the UK can harness the rich opportunities offered by medical science for the benefit of patients and society,” commented its director-general Richard Barker. But he said it is essential that the forthcoming Growth White Paper “set out a clear strategy for the UK to maintain its comparative advantage in the life sciences”.

Also supportive, the BioIndustry Association’s chief executive Nigel Gaymond said the government’s move demonstrates that it understands the importance of research and innovation in securing the UK’s economic recovery.

'Significant challenges'

“A real-terms cut still poses significant challenges, but we acknowledge the commitment of Ministers to ensuring a stable scientific research base in the UK,” he said, but added that the “Growth White Paper, the consultation on R&D tax credits and the taxation of intellectual property will be critical in determining the government’s future course and its impact on industry”.

But even with the flat cash settlement the next few years will be challenging, noted Professor Marshall Stoneham, President of the Institute of Physics. “The science community will need to work very hard to maintain the excellence of our research, retain the best young researchers and avoid any damage to our international reputation in a world where many other countries are increasing their investment in research”, he stressed.

And Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, argued that "even at about 10% down, we'll be playing catch-up in an international field which could see UK science left behind," and added that charities will now likely come under greater pressure to fund more medical research.