Select Committee on Science and Technology Sixth Report

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  We find it surprising that OST could establish a new organisation without giving it a clear mission or defining its place in the policy-making framework. Under these circumstances it is scarcely surprising that RCUK struggled to establish itself in its community and lacked a sense of direction and leadership. It is regrettable that the shortcomings identified in OST's internal review in 2003 were not put right by the following year. (Paragraph 16)

2.  we are concerned that the new structural arrangements do not go far enough towards giving RCUK the clarity of mission and independence of purpose that it should have. (Paragraph 18)

3.   If RCUK can demonstrate that it can operate successfully in establishing cross-Council priorities in an independent manner, we see no reason why it should not, in time, take full responsibility for the allocation of the funding awarded to the Research Councils as a whole by Government. If it is necessary to create RCUK as a legal entity in order to meet this aim, it should not be ruled out on the basis that it may be a lengthy process. We recommend that OST consider this model as a medium term aim. (Paragraph 24)

4.  We recommend that the Joint Strategy Group ceases to be chaired exclusively by the Director General of the Research Councils. (Paragraph 26)

5.  The Government's extreme sensitivity about separate responses from Research Councils is stifling the debate which is necessary for good policy-making. It has established RCUK outside of Government to give a loud collective voice to the Research Councils in science policy making. To deny it the opportunity to use its voice without Government approval is self-defeating and absurd. We recommend that the Government sets out its reasons for seeking to inhibit the Research Councils in this way. We further recommend that the Research Councils assert their independence by submitting, individually or collectively as appropriate, their own views without seeking Government approval, starting with the response to this Report. (Paragraph 29)

6.  We recommend that the OST reconsiders the issue of the chairmanship of the RCUK Executive Group after a further two years. (Paragraph 32)

7.  We recognise the need for an NDPB such as RCUK to respect departmental boundaries and lines of communication, but in an area which requires joined-up policy making we would expect RCUK to be a strong representative of the concerns of Research Councils, particularly over skills shortages. We have not yet been persuaded that RCUK is exercising much influence, or even that it is seriously seeking to do so. (Paragraph 36)

8.  We welcome the steps that RCUK is taking in the context of the Funders' Forum to gather better statistics with which to inform decision-making on the sustainability of disciplines. (Paragraph 40)

9.  We recommend that RCUK specifically addresses the issue of short term contracts in its future work. (Paragraph 41)

10.  We recommend that RCUK ensures that it is heavily involved in the preparation of the HEFCE response to the invitation to provide the Secretary of State for Education and Skills with advice on protecting courses of national strategic importance. (Paragraph 42)

11.  We find it surprising that RCUK and OST between them have not yet worked out how the DGRC's discretionary fund is to be allocated. We recommend that the Government draw upon the advice of RCUK and announce in the near future how this money is to be used. (Paragraph 43)

12.  We recommend that RCUK include clear objectives in its delivery plan for its relationship with RDAs. We will look closely at how these relations have developed the next time that we scrutinise RCUK. (Paragraph 47)

13.  We welcome the work that Research Councils are doing to measure the impact of the move towards funding the full economic costs of research and look forward to the publication of the full findings of its monitoring exercise. (Paragraph 51)

14.  We recommend that RCUK considers carefully the demand for, and usefulness of, its strategy documents before producing any updated versions. (Paragraph 56)

15.  We welcome the stronger stated emphasis by the Research Councils on increasing responsive mode funding for basic research. In order to demonstrate that the reality matches the rhetoric, we recommend that RCUK encourages all Research Councils to maintain comparable statistics which can clearly demonstrate changes in the balance of funding over time. In addition, any increase in the level of responsive mode funding needs to be supported by evidence that it is delivering outputs: we recommend that the new performance management framework is capable of providing such indicators. (Paragraph 60)

16.  We welcome the steps RCUK and the Research Councils have taken to provide fuller information on grant application success rates. We recommend that RCUK discuss with universities the possibility of making public this information on a departmental level. (Paragraph 61)

17.  We have been encouraged by the evidence we have found of an enlightened and realistic view at the Treasury of the benefits and potential uncertainties involved in funding research, particularly basic research, and measuring outputs. We also welcome the attempt to establish in advance yardsticks for measuring performance as an improvement on the previous tendency towards the retrospective imposition of such measures. We look forward to examining the detail and operation of the performance management system in future inquiries. We recommend that the proposed outcome measures are validated in a peer reviewed manner to ensure that they do not distort the research strategy. (Paragraph 63)

18.  We welcome the role RCUK has played in promoting multidisciplinary approaches to research and the commitment of the Research Councils to supporting new interdisciplinary research centres. We recommend that the delivery plans of RCUK and the individual Research Councils indicate how the commitment to multidisciplinary research will be maintained and monitored over the next Spending Review period. (Paragraph 66)

19.  We welcome the steps that RCUK and the Research Councils have taken to review their peer review mechanisms in response to our recommendations. We accept that there may be reasons why complete harmonisation is not obtainable but we remain concerned at the extent to which multidisciplinary grant applications can be adequately catered for at present. We are pleased to see that RCUK is specifically addressing this issue in its delivery plan. (Paragraph 71)

20.  The impact of this conservatism on the funding decisions of Research Councils is a major interest to us. In a period in which Research Councils are increasingly being required to demonstrate value for money in their funding, a leaning towards the relatively safe areas of research would be understandable, but not necessarily desirable. The operation of the peer review system is a complex, far-reaching subject which lies outside the scope of this inquiry, but we recommend that RCUK monitors any signs of an increasingly risk averse culture developing as part of Research Councils' review process. (Paragraph 72)

21.  We welcome the fact that RCUK has answered our call for a more collective approach to science in society activities and look forward to the announcement of the new strategy. We hope that other promised related activities will not be too far behind. (Paragraph 73)

22.  We conclude that RCUK is playing a useful role in promoting administrative convergence and much progress has been made. This should benefit cross-Council co-operation and the administration of joint schemes as well as realize significant financial savings. However, as we have indicated earlier, the current partnership model does not lend itself to dynamic action. It is particularly important that RCUK has mechanisms for monitoring the full consequences of the decisions that it and HEFCE take. We believe that the pace of change would be faster under the arrangements that we have outlined in chapter 3. In the meantime, the DGRC should monitor progress on a regular basis. (Paragraph 78)

23.  We commend RCUK's role in the implementation of the Je-S system, which will provide significant improvements for researchers in applying for grants and will make interdisciplinary applications more straightforward. (Paragraph 80)

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