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


Memorandum submitted by the Royal Academy of Engineering

  The Royal Academy of Engineering is pleased to respond to the Committee's inquiry into the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA).

NESTA's low profile

  The Academy's first observation concerns NESTA's low profile.

  Of over 130 Fellows of this Academy who responded to our call for comments, 110 professed no knowledge or awareness of NESTA whatsoever. Given that The Academy's Fellows occupy senior positions in academia and in major engineering companies—positions from which we might expect a good number to apply for NESTA grants in their own names or to encourage colleagues to do so—it is disappointing that so few are aware of the opportunities available.

  As one Fellow (an engineering Professor closely involved in environmental issues and water management) put it, "I have never heard of NESTA. This is amazing since most active academics have a sixth sense when funding opportunities present themselves."

  The Academy would strongly encourage NESTA to review its marketing and publicity. NESTA enjoys The Academy's strong support, but it is clear that the organisation is failing to connect with key leaders in British innovation.

  We recommend that NESTA consider taking steps to raise its profile in centres of excellence, such as university engineering departments rated 5 or 5* in the recent Research Assessment Exercise.

  We were pleased to receive a recent letter from NESTA publicising the new "Dream Time" fellowships. We shall certainly draw these to the attention of our Fellows.

NESTA's performance

  NESTA is well regarded by those (relatively few) Fellows who have dealings with it. A small number of Fellows have received NESTA grants towards their work, or have acted as mentors on NESTA projects.

  Without exception, this small group of Fellows reported their dealings with NESTA in positive terms.

NESTA's general operations

  NESTA has built an excellent reputation as a responsible and supportive grant-giving body. NESTA monitors projects closely and its supervisors remain closely involved in the progress of each project.

NESTA's assessment procedures

  NESTA's procedures for evaluating proposed new projects are well structured and of the rigour expected of any distributor of public funds.

  Most of the science and technology grants have been for interesting and worthwhile projects, although it is more difficult to see how some of NESTA's investments in the arts will generate a return. Nevertheless, we would encourage NESTA to continue to take a more adventurous approach than would be possible under the sort of guidelines followed by conventional venture capitalists. NESTA's freedom to aim higher and take greater risks is to be valued.

  NESTA has a good record of supporting unusual projects that would not be funded by other means. The Academy would encourage NESTA to steer away from supporting educational projects, for which other sources of funds exist. Instead, NESTA should concentrate on backing innovative ideas that are outside the remit of other funding bodies.

Effective mentoring

  Most NESTA fellowships involve the appointment of a mentor, who can act as a source of support and advice, as well as playing a role in assessment and monitoring. This scheme works well, with many mentors providing advice and assistance "beyond the call of duty".

  The Academy operates a similar mentoring system in respect of its own post-doctoral research fellowships and other appointments and finds it of great value. Some Academy Fellows act as NESTA mentors.

Value of awards

  NESTA's Fellowships for "exceptional individuals" are remarkably generous when compared with the meagre awards available to those doing PhDs in strategically important science and technology subjects. Although this causes some resentment among engineering academics, the solution is to address the very serious problem of low salaries throughout academia, rather than to reduce the level of NESTA awards.

  We would be pleased to discuss these points with the Committee in more detail. As ever, please do not hesitate to contact me if you require any further details.

June 2002


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