Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council


  1.  The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) is a Non-Departmental Public Body, sponsored by the Scottish Executive Education, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Department. SHEFC was established under the terms of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act (1992) and has a remit to fund the provision of education and the undertaking of research in higher education institutions (HEIs) in Scotland.


  2.  The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council is one of the major funders of the science base in Scotland. In 2000-01, the Council's total budget will be about £615 million, a significant proportion of which will be allocated to support teaching and research in SET in Scotland's universities and colleges. The Council has a clear interest in the development of science strategy, both at the UK and the Scottish level.

  3.  In this response, the Council has drawn attention mainly to the impact of the 1993 White Paper on its own activities although, where appropriate, we offer some comments on its wider impact. Our response also provides some comments on the development of a future strategy for science, engineering and technology.


  4.  One of the main objectives of the White Paper was to ensure that the science, engineering and technology base was, in the future, used more effectively to enhance the UK's competitiveness and to bring improvements in the public services and the quality of life. The White Paper set out a number of measures, or policy initiatives, designed to achieve this key objective.

  5.  The Council's view that it is probably too soon to tell whether the main objectives of the White Paper have been met, or are likely to be met. There are two problems in seeking to assess the effectiveness of the White Paper. Firstly, the Paper mainly proposed changes in the way in which the science base should be managed and funded in the future. It did not, however, set out measurable targets for the future contribution of the science base to wealth creation and, clearly, the lack of such targets makes if difficult to assess the real impact of the White Paper on the UK's competitiveness. Having said that, the UK Higher Education Funding Councils are currently developing plans for an annual survey of higher education-business interactions and of commercialisation activity in the higher education sector. This survey should allow us to establish a baseline level of activity in higher education from which improvements in later years can be measured.

  6.  The second difficulty in assessing the full impact of the White Paper is that many of the policy initiatives and structural changes, that the Paper proposed took time to implement. For example, one of the main outcomes of the Paper was the Technology Foresight exercise and the publication of the first report from the Steering Group in 19951. However, this report will probably not have had an immediate impact since many of the bodies that have played an essential role in taking forward its conclusions, including the Higher Education Funding Councils and the Research Councils, required a further period of time to develop new policies and initiatives in response to the report.

  7.  In the case of SHEFC, the Council published a consultation document (Addressing Technology Foresight) which invited views on how it might best respond to Technology Foresight and set out a number of options. It subsequently published an Action Plan in 1996 (Addressing Technology Foresight: Action Plan) setting out plans to establish a major grant scheme (the Research Development Grant) which was intended to help improve the fit between the research capability and Scottish HEIs and the long-term needs of society, as identified through the Foresight Programme.

  8.  The Research Development Grant (RDG) scheme was introduced in 1997-98 and, to date, the Council has funded a total of 53 proposals to the value of £26 million (A list of the awards classified by Foresight panels is attached as Annex A to this Memorandum.) The Council has also recently announced the funding for a further 16 awards for next year, totalling £12 million in value. It has not yet been possible to evaluate the effectiveness of the RDG scheme as a mechanism for addressing Foresight priorities. However, with the support of the Scottish Executive, the Council is currently developing an evaluation programme, which, among other things, will seek to examine the extent to which RDG awards appear to be addressing Foresight priorities. The findings from the evaluation are expected to be available early next year.

  9.  Overall, the 1993 White Paper appears to have been successful in stimulating changes in the organisation and management of the publicly funded science base, and in establishing clear priorities for funding through exercises such as Foresight. However, it is not yet clear that there is sufficient evidence to assess whether the changes have been successful in meeting the main objectives of the White Paper in enhancing economic growth.


  10.  The Council believes that the broad themes and objectives of the White Paper continue to remain appropriate. In particular, there continues to be a need for the UK as a whole to ensure that it maximises its ability to exploit its investment in the science base. Realising our Potential emphasised that it was essential to maintain the excellence and diversity of science, technology and engineering in the UK if the nation is to increase its international competitiveness. In doing so, it also reaffirmed the Government's commitment to the dual support system for funding research in the UK. The Council welcomed this commitment and the evidence suggests that the UK continues to have a broad and diverse science base, with a balanced portfolio of high quality research ranging from basic, blue-skies research, at one end of the spectrum, to highly applied and commercially relevant research at the other.

  11.  However, a key issue continues to be whether we have in place effective policies and funding arrangements to support technology transfer and diffusion—or knowledge transfer as it is now called—so as to stimulate innovation. To give one example, Bob May has highlighted in the area of Biotechnology that the UK appears to be a clear second to the USA in the citation of research papers, but is still some way behind the USA and Japan in the ownership of patents2. The rate of knowledge transfer that, in turn, potentially affects the rate of innovation also remains an important issue. At the same time, the evidence suggests that UK expenditure on R&D has declined relative to that of our major OECD competitors.

  12.  It is clear therefore that an important theme for a future science strategy must be on improving the contribution that the science base can make to the innovation process. In particular, there is a need to encourage greater investment in R&D by business and industry, and to seek ways of exploiting the science base more effectively for the commercial benefit of the UK. In this we welcome the work, at the UK level, to develop a coherent Science and Innovation Strategy and, in Scotland, the work to develop a Scottish Science Strategy. We believe that the timing of this work is critical since other industrialised countries appear to be developing similar strategies. For example, in Canada, a report published last year by the Government's Advisory Council on Science and Technology put forward a number of recommendations for the federal funding of research aimed at increasing the role of the science base in the innovation process3.

  13.  The second main theme that we believe that a new science strategy should address is that of co-ordination. There are two dimensions to this. First, there is a need to ensure that there is continuing close co-ordination between different government departments across the UK. This is particularly important in the context of devolution. In this regard, the Council concurs with many of the arguments contained in the 1999 report of the Royal Society of London and the Royal Society of Edinburgh4 for the benefits that Scotland gains from being part of the UK science base, and for the need for Scotland to remain a well integrated part of the UK science base. The second dimension to this is to ensure that there is co-ordination between the different funding agencies, including the Funding Councils, Research Councils and enterprise agencies such as the RDAs, or Local Enterprise Companies in Scotland, all of whom have a role to play in stimulating innovation.

  14.  Our view overall is that a new science strategy should seek to build on the objectives of the 1993 White Paper, but that it should ensure that the underlying policies, and the mechanisms to deliver these policies, continue to be appropriate. In particular, there should be a renewed emphasis on innovation and on co-ordination between government departments across the UK and between the funding bodies.


  15.  It is difficult to assess with any hard evidence whether the attempts to deliver the proposals of the 1993 White Paper have resulted in a culture change across the SET base. However, our perception is that there has been a change in the higher education SET base and that this is manifested in two ways. Firstly, it appears that there is a greater awareness within the higher education sector of the need to undertake research in the context of wider societal needs, including commercial needs. This does not mean, of course, that all research is driven by immediate economic, social or cultural needs. It is simply that researchers appear to be more willing to consider the potential applicability of their research and, where appropriate, to develop links with the potential users of this research.

  16.  In part, this is probably a response to changes in the funding of research. For example, the Council's Research Development Grant has the specific objective of helping to improve the fit between the research capability of Scottish HEIs and the long-term needs of society, and so it is perhaps not surprising that this is reflected increasingly in institutional research strategies. However, since 1996, the Council has asked institutions to provide annual reports, indicating how they have used Foresight in developing their research strategies. These reports indicate that most institutions have also sought to embed the findings of Foresight in their strategic research plans. Examples include the adoption of particular Foresight priorities in the planning processes at different levels of the institution, the dissemination of Foresight information to staff, ring-fencing budgets for Foresight purposes and requiring Foresight priorities to be taken into account in applications for research funding from public sources.

  17.  The other area where there appears to have been a change in attitudes or culture, at least in Scotland, is in the organisation of research and the resources to support research. In particular, there is a greater willingness among institutions to collaborate with each other, including between institutions with very different backgrounds and histories. The forms of collaboration range from formal institutional partnerships, such as the "synergy" partnership between the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, to more local collaboration in the sharing of research facilities or equipment. The majority of proposals for support from the Councils' Research Development Grant scheme now involve partnerships between higher education institutions in Scotland, and between institutions and external bodies. Another notable feature of the applications to the RDG scheme is the number of proposals to establish "Scottish Centres of Research" which, rather than serving the interests of only one institution, involve collaborative partnerships that build on complementary strengths of different institutions. We believe that these developments have served to strengthen the science base in Scotland and are consistent with the objectives of the 1993 White Paper.


  18.  The Council agrees that the aims that the UK Government has set out for a modern SET strategy are appropriate and, indeed, there is a significant degree of consonance between these aims and those in the 1993 White Paper. We believe that this is helpful since it implies an evolution from the objectives of the original White Paper, rather than a fundamental change. As we have already highlighted, we believe that an important issue for the new strategy will be that of co-ordination across the UK and between different funding agencies. We also believe that responsibility for implementing the aims of the strategy need to be clearly defined, including clarifying boundaries of responsibility between different government departments and funding agencies.

  20.  The Government's recent consultation was right to highlight the need to improve the flow of skilled scientists and engineers to business. However, we believe that one of the most important factors that influences the availability of skilled scientists and engineers to work in industry and beyond is the number of school pupils studying science who progress into higher education and, thereafter, into postgraduate study and research. (Although, there are also clearly other external factors including the state of the labour market and the economy, as well as remuneration levels and conditions of service for researchers which will be relevant.) A further issue that the proposed Science and Innovation Strategy might therefore consider is that of science and education, including the education, training and career development of science teachers.

  21.  Finally, under this heading, the Council agrees that one of the aims of the Science and Innovation Strategy should be to ensure that the UK is able to take advantage of the globalisation of research. However, we believe that it is important that the role of the Foresight exercise in helping to identify the areas of the global research effort where the UK can contribute most should be fully recognised in the strategy.


  22.  The Council's view is that a modern science strategy for SET must be characterised by an emphasis on the development and maintenance of a flexible, diverse scientific research base that is excellent by international standards. In particular, the Higher Education Funding Councils have a key role to play in ensuring that the UK has a strong basic research capacity which will provide the foundation for strategic and applied research that are essential to the development of the knowledge-based economy and society.

  23.  However, investment in a basic scientific research capacity is not by itself a sufficient condition to achieve enhanced economic growth and improvements in the quality of life. A second main feature of a strategy therefore is the development of effective mechanisms for knowledge transfer and the commercialisation of the research base. This requires stimulating the supply of knowledge, technologies and skills from the science base; and, secondly, increasing and improving the demand from the industry/business sector. A copy of a response that the Council has provided to the current consultation by the Scottish Executive on the development of a Science Strategy for Scotland is attached to this Memorandum as Annex B5. This response sets out in more detail the Council's views on the main features of a science strategy.


  1Progress through Partnership. Report from the Steering Group of the Technology Foresight Programme 1995. Office of Science and Technology. 1995.

  2 The Scientific Investments of Nations. Robert M May. Science. Vol. 281. 3 July 1998.

  3 Public Investments in University Research: Reaping the Benefits. Report of the Expert Panel on the Commercialisation of University Research. ACOST. May 1999.

  4 Devolution and Science: A Report by a Joint Working Group of the Royal Society of London and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. April 1999.

  5 Not printed

20 June 2000

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