Science: Willetts wins funding battle with warning of 'brain drain'

British scientists gave a collective sigh of relief yesterday at the Government's decision to keep the £4.6bn science budget at the current level for the next four years, meaning that the sector has escaped with a relatively small 9 per cent cut in real terms until 2015.

It is widely seen as a victory for David Willetts, the science minister, who persuaded the Treasury of the importance of maintaining the science base in order to provide the technological breakthroughs and expertise that could help to revive long-term economic growth and employment.

Scientists had given warning that the rumoured cuts of 20 per cent to the science budget would mean "game over" for science in Britain. But yesterday, Mr Willetts insisted: "This is a fantastic deal for the science community... We have ring-fenced the commitment to science spending of £4.6bn per year." Efficiency savings of more than £300m could be found within scientific organisations to offset the real-terms cut in funding, he added.

Some £2.75bn of the budget will be divided between the six research councils. The biggest winner will likely be the Medical Research Council, given the immediacy of its research to NHS patients. But smaller research programmes in the physical sciences are likely to be squeezed hardest, given the Government's commitment to projects such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva.

Lord Rees, the Royal Society's president, said the settlement for the core science budget was welcome "The Government has recognised the importance of sustaining the international standing of UK science in a context where other nations are forging ahead," he said.