Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 740 - 744)



  Q740  Stephen Williams: The question we have not raised at all in this metrics mix is the quality indicator. What assessment have you both made of how that quality indicator will work? When the Committee was in Australia in November last year, we heard from the chief scientist about their impact assessment on the impact of research. Do you have any worries or concerns about impact or a quality indicator?

  Professor Petersen: Impact is very difficult. One of the basic problems is that it takes a very long time from a basic discovery until you can see what the impact is. When Einstein published his famous papers in 1905 it was not easy to assess at that point what the eventual impact would be. Eventually, it was colossal as we see every day when we fly around the world and so on. We have GPS—Global Positioning Systems. It was impossible at that point to assess the impact, so one has to be very careful. We are not against impact assessment but in very many areas of fundamental research it is not a very easy task to evaluate in the relatively short term. We have to support a considerable amount of basic research because our past experience shows us that very often 10, 20, 30 years later it leads to some fantastic development. To make an assessment within a five year period is often exceedingly difficult and quite impossible. You could jump to the completely wrong conclusion, saying, "This is not very important," so it is a very difficult area.

  Professor Diamond: Stephen, are you referring to academic impact or non-academic impact, because both of them are incredibly important? The bottom line is you need brilliant science in order to have either academic or non-academic impact. The measure of quality in the first place—the academic peer review of the selection—has to be good. Having said that, you then need properly to be able to measure and reward both academic impact and non-academic impact. I get very nervous about the use of simple impact factors because different disciplines have different impact factors. You need therefore to have a disciplinary approach to do that on the academic side. On the non-academic side, there is an enormous amount of work going on to really understand how to measure non-academic impact and I think that is something that we really need to work on over the next little while.

  Q741  Jeff Ennis: We are obviously facing a future of increased international competition in research. How much can that be nullified or countered by increasing international cooperation?

  Professor Diamond: I think international cooperation is incredibly important. We have looked at the indicators of collaboration between the UK and the US. If you look at the citation indices, you find that where US researchers collaborate with UK researchers they get higher citation rates than if they do not and vice versa for the UK. We must remove the barriers to international collaboration. Some of those are something that is called double jeopardy. People are aware of double jeopardy. I will not explain what it is. We are working very hard across the Research Councils to remove double jeopardy. My own Research Council now has 14 different agreements[12] with different international organisations whereby we jointly peer review and take decisions. In this country someone working in Oxford with a team between Oxford and Liverpool can simply come to one Research Council. If that person in Oxford is working with someone in Mannheim, they need simply to be able to go to one Research Council. Research Councils UK are working extremely hard to enable that to happen. Research Councils UK are also working extremely hard to engage with some of the emerging scientific areas such as China, India and some of the other areas. Indeed, we are opening offices in the next year in China, in the next month or so and, later on, in India. We are also opening an office in Washington really to be able to enable UK research to take place. The EU is a critical area for us and we are working very hard there too. The UK Research Councils have had an office in Brussels for many years and it is important that we impact on science policy. The other international area that is deeply important is infrastructure. For many years the UK has contributed to CERN, the huge particle physics laboratory in Geneva. Those sorts of infrastructure are not simply in that area now. We go right across the piece. I just might mention to you two things, for example, the National Environment Research Council with its ocean going vessels that researchers from many countries work on in a very sensible way; or even in social science, where the European social survey has been undertaken over the last few years. 20 countries in Europe are undertaking a similar social survey at exactly the same time. That has been led from the UK. Roger Jowell won the Descartes Prize for Science, one of the foremost European science prizes for that work. The only way we are going to maintain our expertise is by ensuring that we continue to work to attract great scientists to this country. We have to have the facilities for them. We have to remove barriers to international collaboration. We have to have access to facilities and we work through our political processes and Research Councils to impact on the international scientific agenda.

  Professor Petersen: International collaboration is incredibly important. There are opportunities and I think we have to take them where we can but there are also threats in that sense because it is a global market for scientists. It means that outstanding scientists can move around. We are also going to see some major changes in the higher education sector. My own university has now built a university in collaboration with a Chinese university near Shanghai and we may see in the future globalised universities with campuses around the world, which will again create a different kind of international competition. The scenery is changing very rapidly but different research circumstances in different universities will, in different parts of the world, create the kind of transfer market we talked about before internationally. From this point of view, it is very important that we have a sustainable research base here that is sufficiently attractive to keep good people here.

  Q742  Chairman: The Committee is going to China in June to have a look at what is going on there.

  Professor Diamond: I trust the Committee will find time to visit our office.

  Q743  Chairman: We are already planning to. Professor Diamond, you never commented on Professor Petersen's remark that he would like to see a doubling of the research budget. How big would you like to see it?

  Professor Diamond: I am not going to give you a number. I am simply very clear in my mind that there is an enormous amount of world class science unfunded in this country. While the increasing money has been very welcome, we remain relatively lowly funded in world terms, particularly for volume. All Research Councils could spend significantly more money than they have on volume research that would be spent incredibly wisely and which would have real, measurable impacts on the economic development and the quality of life for this country.

  Q744  Chairman: You would not turn down a doubling?

  Professor Diamond: I would not turn down a doubling.

  Chairman: It has been a pleasure having two experienced and knowledgeable people in front of this Committee and also two that are not afraid to disagree when they had to. Sitting here, watching some of the body language of the two of you was quite interesting. Thank you very much.

12   11 signed and three under negotiation Back

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