Response to Questions from the Committee|
QQ.I & IIKEY
Question I: Do you agree with the Government's
aim for the strategy?
We agree with the aim, which is all embracing, but
suggest that it is expanded to "..science and technology..".
Question II: Do you agree with the eight proposed
areas for action?
We broadly agree with the proposed action, though
some of the points require further clarification. For example,
it is clearly desirable to improve the flow of appropriately trained
scientists and engineers to industry, but this should not be at
the expense of university science. Some university sectors are
already experiencing problems in retaining trained individuals
because they are unable to offer a competitive salary.
We have a slight caveat over "streamlining
knowledge transfer schemes" where it is important to recognise
that different scientific and industrial sectors have different
Knowledge Transfer requirements and thus we should not be pursuing
rationalisation (or streamlining) for rationalisation's sake.
Bullet 8 is misleadingit is adequately
explained in paragraph 18, but the term "regulation of science"
in the bullet does not cover the full aim.
QQ.III & IVIMPROVING
Question III: Do you agree with these priorities?
Put more emphasis on multi-disciplinary research
"Multidisciplinarity" is not only
at the boundaries between Research Councils, but is equally important
between different disciplines within a single Council.
Barriers to multidisciplinary research take
a variety of forms, and all need to be addressed if multidisciplinarity
is to flourish:
University departmental structure,
both physical and administrative. Little incentive for researchers
from different disciplines to meet and collaborate;
The RAE, subject-based Panelswith
the real, or perceived, problem that they do not favour multidisciplinary
to difficulty in getting multidisciplinary work published;
Scientific societiesalso discipline-based
and may be reluctant to accredit researchers with training in
Peer reviewperceived difficulty
of getting multidisciplinary research funded because of "multiple
hurdles" or committee/board conservatism;
Languagedifficulty in finding
common ground because every discipline has its own terminology.
Whilst the importance of multidisciplinary research
is now fully accepted it should also be recognised that it can
only be based on world class research in a single discipline.
One of the most effective ways to progress multidisciplinary studies
is for effective collaborations of scientists in different areas.
Put more emphasis on basic technology, alongside
There needs to be recognition that basic science
and basic technology are co-dependent; advances in one will stimulate
advances in the other. Both contribute to UK competitiveness.
We would express caution of the view that basic
technology might have been under-emphasised in the past. It has
long been recognised that advances in basic technology are needed
to allow advances in basic science and numerous examples are to
be found arising from the UK Science Base. It may well be that
much of this technology has been developed outside the UK but
that gives rise to different issues. Nevertheless an increased
emphasis on such technology giving rise to a higher profile is
Get the balance right between core funding and grants
for research institutes
The priority given to getting the balance right
between core funding and grants in the institutes is very welcome.
However, the definition of "core" is important, and
in the BBSRC case raises the vital question of the future of the
MAFF/FSA research budget. The BBSRC institutes were established
on the basis of two sources of "core" funding via the
ARC/AFRC and MAFF. MAFF no longer accept any responsibility for
"core" funding and have been supported in this stance
In order to stabilise the science base in key
areas such as animal disease research, animal genetics and grassland
and environmental research, it should be emphasised that MAFF,
for example, should provide support to maintain facilities which
are required for their future requirements. It is not appropriate
for these facilities to be maintained from Research Council funding
What are the issues?
Enables provision of long-term research.
E.g. many "sustainability" issues require funding over
many years. The Rothamsted Broadbalk experiments, which have been
in continuous cultivation for over 140 years are an invaluable
national resource; it is unlikely that these would have been continuously
funded by grants;
Allows provision of infrastructurecost
effective when built around groups of sufficient critical mass
to undertake leading edge research. Large scale facilities (eg
animal housing) can be planned without requiring individual grant
Encourages multidisciplinarity. Institutes
can and do contain the range of disciplines for their mission;
Enables major programmes to be planned
in a more coherent way under the co-ordinated direction possible
in an institute. Responsive-mode does not readily allow for equivalent
planning to ensure complete coverage of a programme or balance
Provides a critical mass of expertise
in areas of interest to industry that can lead to long term collaborations.
Responsive-mode or initiative grants:
Provide additional funding to allow
exploration of new avenues (without long-term commitment);
Allow flexibilityallow relatively
fast changes of direction into new topics;
Provide competitive edge. The continual
necessity to be judged by open peer review imposes a discipline
upon researchers, and should ensure that the best science is funded.
Overall, it is important that core funding is
sufficient to provide the critical mass in key areas of an institute's
remit, and grants provide the opportunity for flexibility and
testing out potential new avenues of research. A rigorous form
of assessment of research funded from the core, plus an effective
externally-driven mechanism for acting on this assessment, is
essential. Finally, it should be stressed that allocation of the
core grant of an Institute must be open to rigorous assessments
and some element of competition.
Question IV: What changes would you want to see?
The medium to long-term future of the science
base will depend to some degree on a continuing programme for
renewing infrastructure in universities and institutesboth
teaching and research facilities need to be upgraded regularly
and equipment has to be kept up to date. Investment in IT equipment
is particularly significant in view of the growing demand for
large scale data-handling in the biosciences and elsewhere.
The strength of the science base depends also
on providing the best training and a satisfactory career structure
to all those who will remain in science. In particular, this requires
finding and keeping the major research leaders of the future.
Biological and biotechnological training is normally a three year
first degree followed by a three year doctorate. A minority of
people will have had an additional year. This contrasts with the
physical sciences, where, for the ablest future sciences, a 4+3
form of training is becoming the norm. It is increasingly clear
that a doctorate in the Life Sciences would benefit enormously
from a fourth year of study. This might take a number of different
forms ranging from a year spent obtaining an MSc or MRes degree
following which some, but not all, would proceed onwards to a
PhD. In other cases, and with great advantage, a four year period
for PhD might be followed which would include many aspects of
training in professional skills and other areas. This training
would be planned alongside the research programme throughout the
The Government's recent initiatives on tax and
expenditure policies to create a climate for innovation are to
be greatly welcomed. The BBSRC agrees that ownership of intellectual
property rights should be vested in those who carry out the research
and this accords with the policy adopted by BBSRC for research
pursued in its institutes and in universities.
It is also prudent to consider in detail the
experience of the USA with its SBIR programme. This scheme requires
careful analysis however as, whilst there have been many examples
of successful and innovative R&D in small firms pursued under
this scheme, there have also been instances where money has not
been well spent. It may be that the approach could be modified,
with benefit, for the UK so that SBIR funds are not seen as "soft
money" but rather they are levered with 50 per cent funding
from the SME. This may provide a rather harder edge to R&D
investment decisions taken. It could be accommodated within the
UK system by a significant revamp of the LINK scheme, shifting
the focus to start-up companies and eliminating the need for strict
financial viability checks (which are a requirement under current
LINK procedures and work against support for start-up companies).
However it is essential that the Government maintains its investment
in the public sector science base and thus if an SBIR-like scheme
is to be introduced it should not be funded through a levy on
The Government's actions in promoting venture
capital are to be welcomed, as is the availability of seedcorn
funds for start-ups arising from the science base established
under the University Challenge initiative. However there remains
a gap in funding between the point at which Research Council grant
support ends and the stage at which the science has been developed
such that its commercial potential is clear. It is only at this
stage that a convincing case can be made to launch a start-up
company based on seedcorn, venture capital or business angel funding.
Often relatively small sums of money are required, £50-100K,
to fill this development gap, and so allow reduction to practice.
As part of the spending review, the Research Councils have already
submitted a bid for resources to provide such development gap
QQ. VI & VIIFACILITATING
It is to be welcomed that the document recognises
the need for "flexibility to meet the different needs of
different kinds of firms and sectors". It needs to be recognised
that knowledge transfer covers a broad swathe of activities which
may be classified as:
knowledge development in collaboration
knowledge transfer through people
development of entrepreneurial skills;
IP management and exploitation;
promotion of start-up companies.
It is always likely that a range of schemes
will be required to ensure effective promotion of these activities
appropriate to the particular area of the science base and the
characteristics of the industrial sector(s) it serves.
The BBSRC has had particular success in promoting
entrepreneurial skills for postgraduates/postdoctorals through
its Young Entrepreneurs Scheme, and the development of well thought
through business plans from its bioscience base through its Bioscience
Business Plan Competition. The Research Councils, through their
intimate knowledge of their science base and user communities,
are frequently best placed to deliver knowledge transfer schemes.
The BBSRC has made particular efforts over recent years to cultivate
networks with the wider bioscience knowledge transfer community
in venture capital firms, finance houses, accountancy and law
firms etc. We therefore feel well placed to encourage the networking
necessary to move ideas from the laboratory to the market place.
QQ. VIII & IXPROMOTING
BBSRC acknowledges that the promotion of RDAs
as strategic integrators would have undoubted benefits in having
available regional innovation funds aimed at capturing the benefits
of the science base for business needs at the local and regional
level. However there is a danger that if too much authority, and
funding, are made available at a regional level it could work
against national need with individual regions competing rather
than developing complementary niches. For example would all regions
seek to develop their own biotechnology clusters and, if so, is
this the best way for the UK to develop an industrial strategy.
There could be merit in following the German example whereby regions
have a certain amount of autonomy but there is also direction
applied from the centre. In biotechnology, the German BioRegio
Competition provides a good example of catalysing, in a co-ordinated
way, activity at the regional level. Thus the centre (in this
case BMBF) announced that federal funds would be available to
support biotechnology clusters in no more than three regions where
the criteria for bidding included evidence of regional scientific,
industrial and financial/infrastructural strengths as well as
consideration of resources which would be put in at the regional
Whilst there is much to commend the establishment
of regional innovation funds, there is nevertheless a need to
retain oversight, in some form, to ensure best use of resources
for the national good.
QQ. X & XIIMPROVING
The analysis in paragraphs 12 and 13 smacks
of complacency. The key issue in PhD training is quality not numbers.
In the biosciences, there is plenty of evidence from employers
that the quality of the PhD "product" is not what they
expect and that this feeds through to the postdoc period too.
Tom McKillop, for example, was widely quoted recently, saying
that the lead which the UK had previously held over other countries
for research activities due to the supply of highly trained scientists
had been eroded and, in practical terms, had disappeared. Other
senior people in the field have made similar comments.
To increase the supply of PhD/postdoctoral bioscientists
of the right quality would require a solution along the lines
of the UKLSC Working Party report; four years of PhD funding for
high quality students and an increase in stipend to at least £9K.
The take-up by SMEs of PhD/postdoctoral scientists
would be further stimulated if a Bursary scheme were created to
support a year's salary for scientists to join an SME following
a PhD or postdoc contract.
QQ. XII & XIIITHE
Question XII: Do you agree with the Government's
view of the diversity of mission of universities?
It has been recognised by Government and HEFCs
that there should be diversity within the University system. The
Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), by providing research funds
in a highly skewed manner on the basis of research quality, has
caused this to happen.
Greater diversification is desirable. To enable
this to occur a variety of mainline drivers for funding is required.
One such idea is described below. To be effective, the nature
of funding needs to be driven by performance, and flagged sufficiently
in advance that patterns of behaviour can change. Single-call
initiatives to promote innovation are less effective.
Paragraph 15 implies a distinction between universities
that are world class centres of research excellence and those
that are collaborators with local business and regional actors.
The real situation is not as clear-cut as this; the two categories
are not mutually exclusive. Many universities deliver on both
a local and global level.
Question XIII: Do you consider that government
could do more, whether through changes to funding systems, or
otherwise, to help universities play a full role as drivers of
innovation in the knowledge economy?
Further incentives need to be built into the
funding system to encourage universities to play a fuller role
as drivers of innovation. The funding of universities by HEFCs
is presently largely driven by the Research Assessment Exercise.
There needs to be a counter-weight, such as a Knowledge Transfer
Assessment Exercise, to encourage universities to invest in their
knowledge transfer infrastructure. It will be difficult, although
not impossible, to devise criteria through which universities
are judged in context, measuring their performance against their
particular research strengths and the needs of the local and national
industrial sectors which they underpin.
It is essential to promote the image of the
UK as a modern high-tech economy in order to promote both inward
investment and to encourage export trade. The recently introduced
International Technology Promoters may have a role here although
some priority will need to be established as to the sectors they
operate in and their geographical focus. Furthermore there is
a perception that Science and Technology departments in embassies
abroad have been diminished over recent years, and there could
be benefit to the UK in bolstering these groups through deployment
of staff with scientific backgrounds adopting a more proactive
International scientific collaboration is important
in terms of both adding value to the science base in the UK and
in addressing science policy issues (eg. biosafety) which cross
The mass media are the principal source of most
people's perceptions of how government takes advice on scientific
matters and of the scientific basis for policy decisions. Public
confidence will primarily be generated by press, radio and TV
reporting. Open publication (including on websites) of advice,
research results and assumptions will help to increase confidence
as will the establishment of high level working groups to take
evidence and publish their views on particular topics.
For the general public, simple and attractive
leaflets on eg GM, food safety, made available at supermarkets,
banks and post offices would help to disseminate information about
government policies on scientific issues.