Select Committee on Science and Technology Ninth Report


3  Research Council activities & policy

Current activities

16. The Research Councils engage at different levels in international activities. International partnerships dominate the work of some Councils such as STFC and NERC, whilst others such as the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) are just beginning to develop their international policies. This diversity is inevitable because some Councils such as STFC "live and breathe" international co-operation through bodies such as the European Space Agency and CERN.[25] Box 1 shows the variety of schemes undertaken by the different Councils. These schemes range from networks that encourage the development of researcher to researcher relationship, to agreements that underpin partnerships between institutions, to Memoranda of Understanding at the country to country level.

Box 1: Examples of International Activities of Research Councils

Travel grants
  • BBSRC enables any grant holder to apply for funding to visit any other country during the course of their research
  • STFC's rolling grants give researchers the flexibility to use funding to travel abroad without submitting a separate application for funding travel.

Fellowships

  • BBSRC provides David Phillips postdoctoral fellowships to researchers from any country
  • Research Councils support the Dorothy Hodgkin Postgraduate scheme that brings students from India, China, Hong Kong, South Africa, Brazil, Russia and the developing world to study in the UK
  • EPSRC runs a "Fellowship and Visiting Researcher" scheme
  • ESRC runs a Visiting Fellowship scheme

Funding for workshops or networking

  • AHRC supports a Research Networks and Workshops scheme
  • BBSRC provides funding for grant holders to initiate activity through a workshop with UK and overseas researchers. 40 workshops have been held in past five years.

Funding for international partnerships

  • BBSRC's "Partnership Awards" provide support for up to four years for specific interactions with researchers in Japan, China or India.
  • NERC's "International Opportunities Fund" supports new international partnerships.

Schemes with specific countries

  • BBSRC has co-funded calls for research proposals with Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR) and L'institut national de la recherche agronomique (INRA) in France
  • ESRC and the British Academy support visits programmes with South Asia and the Middle East
  • NERC runs joint calls with the USA, Netherlands and Norway
  • EPSRC runs joint funding calls with the National Science Foundation in the USA

Memoranda of Understanding

  • Memoranda of understanding with many overseas funders. In 2006 the Research Councils had 35 agreements with US funding agencies or research organisations, 30 with Chinese organisations and smaller numbers with other key funders or research organisations in Japan, Germany, India, France, Korea, Canada etc.

Support for international laboratories

  • STFC contributes to astronomical observatories in Hawaii and Chile
  • MRC funds two overseas units in the Gambia and in Uganda
  • BBSRC's Rothamsted Research has three joint laboratories in China
  • NERC has a facility at Ny Ålesund in Norway

Funding for major international programmes

  • STFC pays the UK's subscription to the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), the European Southern Observatory, and the European Space Agency (ESA)
  • MRC pays the UK's subscription to the European Molecular Biology Laboratory
  • NERC has invested in the Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme (IODP)
  • EPSRC funds the UK fusion programme, which contributes to the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor (ITER)

Support for International Project Offices in the UK

  • NERC supports project offices such as those for the Climate Variability and Predictability Programme (CLIVAR) and the International Polar Year (IPY).

Source: Ev 92, 93, 100

17. During this inquiry, we have heard that the bulk of international engagement and collaboration is usually undertaken by researchers directly, often without reference to the Government or Research Councils. The Government's Global Science and Innovation Forum Strategy acknowledges this:

The vast majority of interactions involving individual UK scientists and UK research establishments are bottom-up— driven by the scientific needs for and assessments of the mutual benefits of working together.[26]

This researcher-to-researcher interaction is crucial. Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of STFC, told us that the "most successful, long-term collaborations are built on a person-to-person relationship and not an institute-to-institute relationship."[27] Many of the Research Councils' activities are thus focused upon addressing barriers to collaboration at this level, such as funding or bureaucratic complexity.[28] The Councils avoid dictating to researchers whether or not they should collaborate internationally and instead focus upon facilitating international engagement by promoting the UK science base through developing Memoranda of Understanding and establishing schemes with specific countries. We acknowledge the diversity of schemes across the Research Councils and encourage the Councils to share best practice.

Strategy

INDIVIDUAL RESEARCH COUNCIL STRATEGIES

18. The Research Councils, driven by OSI, have developed international strategies.[29] Box 2 provides an overview of the main elements in each strategy.

Box 2: Overview of Research Councils' International Strategies

AHRC International Strategy

Three principal aims:

1.  Facilitating access to other funding sources

2.  Fostering collaboration to improve the quality of funded research

3.  Improving operational effectiveness and evaluation through cooperation and sharing of best practice

Strategy focuses on Europe, US, China Region and South Asia.

BBSRC International Strategy

Aim: "That the UK remains a world leader in the biosciences, and that academic research, industrial R&D and the UK economy benefit from the increasing scientific activity across the globe."

Four interrelated areas of activity:

1.  Promoting movement of people

2.  Enabling international research and collaboration

3.  Ensuring access to world-class infrastructure and information

4.  Discharging its global responsibilities

EPSRC International Strategy

Five actions:

1.  Provide funding for UK researchers to collaborate internationally with their chosen partners.

2.  Help UK researchers to do well from European Union programmes. The Framework Programme has many opportunities and we, together with other organisations, can provide help and support to ensure that UK research is well connected into the European Research Area.

3.  Work closely with other UK organisations involved in international research, including Research Councils UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Office of Science and Innovation, British Council, Royal Society and the UK Research Office in Brussels.

4.  Be well-informed about international science policy developments to make sure that our decisions are informed by current international thinking.

5.   Involve the international research community in EPSRC activities, particularly through international reviews of EPSRC programmes and involvement of overseas researchers, especially from target countries, in peer review.

Focused on developing collaborations with US, Europe, China, India and Japan.

ESRC International Strategy

Goal: By 2010, being one of the global champions of international social and economic science.

Activity is focused upon working to:

1.  Remove barriers to international research collaboration

2.  Achieve a leading status for the UK in European collaboration

3.  Establish the UK as the partner of choice for US social and economic researchers, and as a key partner for newly-emerging regions of research strength

4.  Become a world leader in social science data issues

5.  Work productively with relevant UK Government departments in procuring the best possible research evidence for public policy

The ESRC aims to embed international engagement in every aspect of its activities including training, capacity development, responsive grant schemes, research resources, knowledge transfer, and major research investments such as centres.

MRC International Strategy

Addresses two main themes:

1.  Global health research where the outcomes will benefit health in the UK and developing countries

2.  International research that enhances the competitiveness of the UK knowledge and health base

Focus of international work:

1.  To influence and shape the international research agenda

2.  To encourage international collaboration in biomedical research

3.  To encourage the movement of researchers and promote the UK as the partner of choice

NERC International Strategy

NERC states that it will:

1.  Work with scientists, funders and environmental policy makers from the UK, the EU, other countries and international organisations;

2.  Fund world-class scientists to work in and with the UK community. It will fund UK scientists to collaborate with the best groups, wherever located;

3.  Encourage UK scientists to establish international collaborations at early stages in their careers. It will work to overcome the barriers to overseas research students wishing to study in the UK;

4.  Provide support for UK participation and leadership in international collaborative programmes;

5.  Enhance international collaboration within its own programmes.

STFC International Strategy

STFC came into being on 1 April 2007. It is still in the process of formulating its policies and strategies.

Source: Ev 90

19. Witnesses have highlighted that the strategies vary in usefulness and quality. Professor Palmer from the University of Warwick told us that whilst some of the international strategies, for example ESRC's strategy, were good, others such as AHRC's strategy were "motherhood and apple pie".[30] Dr Bernie Jones from the Royal Society reiterated this point: "some are longer than others, some are older than others, and some are more focused than others. Some of them, we believe, are reasonably good, some are almost very good".[31] He highlighted the BBSRC's policy as an example of a good strategy.

20. Several submissions have criticised the Research Councils' international strategies more generally, observing: a lack of cohesion between the policies; a lack of connection to strategies in other countries; a lack of clarity regarding country by country priorities; and a poor correlation with the overall strategies. The Royal Society was perhaps the fiercest critic of the strategies but its analysis was echoed by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the FCO Science and Innovation Network (SIN), and the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.[32] We are particularly concerned that a lack of detail in the strategies could mean first, that the Research Councils miss out on opportunities to develop relationships because partners such as the FCO are unaware of their priorities, and secondly, that there could be unwitting duplication of activities by other organisations such as the academies.

21. Professor Sir Keith O'Nions, Director General of Science and Innovation told us that:

an international dimension and strategy should really be embedded in all of the delivery agents that we have […] and we should have a very clear strategy from those organisations. This probably needs to be clearer than it has been in the past all round, and we are asking the Research Councils to produce much clearer strategies for each of them and an overarching one for RCUK.[33]

He also said that he hoped that the new RCUK strategy would help to align the policies of the Councils and would address criticisms of the existing strategies, particularly from the Royal Society.[34]

RESEARCH COUNCILS UK STRATEGY

22. The RCUK international strategy is to be published this summer. It will set out the Councils' collective international aims and priorities, including to:

"a) Promote collaboration between UK researchers and the best in world, particularly those in Europe, the US, China and India

a)  Promote the movement of researchers and students to and from the UK

b)  Provide UK researchers with access to world class facilities and data

c)  Influence the international research agenda in terms of strategy formulation, priority setting and research delivery and exploitation

d)  Raise the collective international visibility of the Research Councils."[35]

23. As stated by Professor Sir Keith O'Nions, the RCUK strategy is intended to help align the policies of the Research Councils and improve cross-Council co-ordination. RCUK told us that the Research Councils recognise that there is an "increasing need to present the UK research endeavour collectively on the international stage and increasing opportunities for Councils to delivery some activities jointly."[36] The RCUK strategy is part of this agenda as are the creation of an RCUK international team and the establishment of more RCUK offices abroad (paragraph 33).

24. The development of the RCUK strategy and the RCUK international team has been welcomed by stakeholders. The FCO told us that these changes will "undoubtedly benefit the RCs".[37] Universities UK welcomed the move towards a strategy and hoped that it would identify cross-Council issues and ensure a consistent approach.[38] Dr Jones from the Royal Society reiterated this, saying that he hoped the new strategy would align the Research Councils' strategies, practices and procedures.[39] We welcome the development of the international strategies and recommend that individual Councils review their strategies in the light of the new RCUK strategy.

Co-ordination

25. Whilst the Research Councils may be moving towards a unifying strategy, a lack of alignment and co-ordination between the current activities and policies of the Councils has been a recurrent theme in this inquiry. The Royal Society told us that the picture painted to overseas partners was "chaotic".[40] The British Council stated that the lack of a coherent policy from the Research Councils made it difficult to work with them abroad. It noted that:

The arguments that the Research Councils are "concerned only with wealth creation in the UK" and "seeking excellence wherever it might be" do not facilitate a joined-up approach to international collaboration, and make it difficult for the British Council to see where it can best add value to the efforts of others.[41]

26. The Research Councils have already developed a Research Council International Network in order to attempt to address the problem of co-ordination.[42] The network holds meetings between Research Council international teams and key stakeholders. The FCO told us that this network was useful.[43] The Royal Society was more sceptical, saying that the network "has yet to prove its ability to generate significant coordinated activity", although it acknowledged that the network was central to the creation of a RCUK office in China (paragraph 35).[44] Professor Sir Keith O'Nions told us that the criticisms regarding the alignment of the Research Councils' international work had some justification and agreed that there was "a great deal of room for improvement".[45] He also acknowledged that the onus was on RCUK to produce coherence and that "quite a lot is hanging on RCUK's ability to pull that off."[46] When asked if he had confidence in RCUK, he confirmed that he did.[47]

27. As well as a lack of co-ordination between the Councils, the FCO Science and Innovation Network (SIN) identified a problem within Councils in co-ordination between international teams and programme managers. The international teams within the Councils are small and not resourced to have in-depth knowledge of all topics. On occasion, it is thus necessary for the FCO to contact the relevant programme manager directly. The FCO told us that SIN officers have occasionally received different information from the Council international team and the relevant Council programme manager.[48] When a further organisational layer is added, that of the RCUK international team, it is important that there are strong channels of communication between, not only the RCUK and Council international teams, but also between the teams and the relevant programme managers.

28. We are concerned that the Research Councils' activities and policies are not sufficiently co-ordinated either internally or with one another. RCUK should drive cross-Council co-ordination and ensure that the Research Councils' activities and policies are well aligned. We recommend that RCUK review its next steps to improve the co-ordination of activities beyond the creation of its strategy and establishment of the international team.

Visibility

29. As well as the issue of co-ordination, the lack of visibility of Research Council strategies and activities has been raised on several occasions. The University of Sheffield told us that RCUK funding to facilitate international collaboration was "not generally known nor overtly promoted".[49] The University and College Union reiterated this, saying that awareness of Research Council initiatives remained fairly low in the academic and research community.[50] Professor Jenkins from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology explained that "Communication could clearly be improved because there are many schemes/major schemes which we do not know about."[51] An example is the EUROHORCS (Heads of European Research Councils) "Money follows Researchers" scheme, which was established last year. This scheme enables researchers to take their grant funding with them when moving within the EU. During oral evidence, Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the MRC, and Dr Randal Richards, Interim Chief Executive of the EPSRC, told us that none of their researchers had taken advantage of the scheme.[52] In contrast, we heard from the British Council and the Royal Society that their own similar schemes were oversubscribed.[53]

30. We believe that the difference between the uptake of these schemes is accounted for by their visibility within the scientific community. The Research Councils have tended not to advertise their international work. Dr Randal Richards, for example, acknowledged that EPSRC's international activities did not have a high profile, although he said that EPSRC was working to improve this situation.[54] The low profile of Research Council schemes inevitably has a knock-on effect upon the levels of subscription. The Royal Academy of Engineering emphasised to us that the problem with Research Council activities and policies in the international sphere was not that they were fundamentally flawed but rather the fact that "the opportunities and benefits were not well publicised."[55] The University of Warwick reiterated this saying that "the Research Councils' reporting of their international activities is poor, even where the activities themselves are exemplary."[56] Even if one is actively looking for international information on some of the Research Councils' websites, it is not necessarily easy to find their strategies or to discover information about international funding schemes.[57] We have found that NERC's website, for example, is the most difficult to navigate, whilst EPSRC's is the clearest.

31. The Research Councils are conscious that they need to focus upon the outcome (the best science), rather than upon the means (whether or not a researcher travels abroad). For that reason they appear to be somewhat reluctant to advertise international opportunities strongly in case they are thought to be interfering with researchers' individual priorities or research partnerships. Professor Ian Diamond, Chief Executive of ESRC, told us in relation to the "Money Follows Researchers" scheme that "It is a scheme which has removed a barrier and therefore it is available, but I do not think it would be for us as research councils to propagate it."[58] We believe, however, that this somewhat passive approach by the Research Councils results in an uninformed research community that is unaware of the vast range of opportunities and funding available to it. The Research Councils are responsible for communicating with the research community, providing researchers with options, and informing them when barriers to international collaboration have been removed.

32. We are concerned that the Councils' activities are not widely known about in the research community and recommend that the Councils develop ways of improving the visibility of their schemes and disseminating information to the research community.

International offices

33. The Research Councils have been sponsoring an office, the UK Research Office (UKRO), in Brussels since 1984. UKRO's mission is to promote effective UK participation in EU funded research programmes and higher education programmes by:

Its services include a website, a web—and email-based Information Service, an enquiry service, briefing visits and an annual conference.[60]

34. We have received very positive feedback about UKRO and this echoes the findings of our predecessor Committee in 2003.[61] The Royal Academy of Engineering told us, for example, that the office provides a "helpful role in disseminating information about European funding opportunities."[62] The National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS) and Rothamsted Research said that UKRO's activities were welcomed by the research community, were well utilized and should continue to be supported.[63] The Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) reiterated these points, stating that UKRO was a useful conduit for information from the Commission and a source of advice on European Framework Programme regulations, although it called for UKRO to be more proactive in early stage programme development.[64]

35. The Research Councils have recently decided to open new offices in Beijing and Washington. The establishment of the Beijing office is being led by the MRC. According to the MRC, the office will:

develop information resources about high-quality research in China and provide a mechanism, in partnership with FCO SIN and the British Council, for showcasing the work of the Research Councils to the Chinese. The office will develop small grant schemes to help promote collaborations between China and UK through workshops and exchange visits.[65]

The FCO explained to us that it was important for the Research Councils to have an office in China so that they could interact directly with the research funding bodies and the research community. This work will complement the relationships already developed by the FCO at a governmental level. French and German research funders have already established similar offices in China.[66] The UK office in Washington is due to be opened in late 2007 and discussions are at a preliminary stage regarding an office in India.[67]

36. It is unclear how these new offices will be funded and how their performance will be assessed. UKRO is funded by the Research Councils, with BBSRC as the managing agent, and by approximately 140 subscriber organisations. Any UK higher education institution, charity or public research organisation can subscribe to UKRO. Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of MRC, told us that "we anticipate and hope that UK universities either collectively or individually will be joining the work of the office in Beijing and therefore contributing financially to it. Exactly what form that contribution takes has not yet been formalised."[68] Professor Ian Diamond, Chief Executive of ESRC, explained that all of the Research Councils will provide funding for the Washington office but did not clarify whether other organisations would be involved.[69] In relation to performance management, Professor Blakemore told us that the RCUK international team was developing metrics for the performance of the new offices.[70] Although we welcome the establishment of the new overseas offices following the success of UKRO, the performance of these offices should be monitored closely in order to ensure that they fulfil their purpose.

37. RCUK has told us that the aim of these new offices is:

to provide additional resources in priority countries/regions to help raise the collective profile of the Research Councils amongst national research funders and academia and promote and engender collaboration opportunities. The offices provide dedicated funding and local expertise (in tandem with the FCO's Science and Innovation posts) to enable UK research funders, research organisations and individuals to collaborate effectively.[71]

It is essential that these offices raise the collective profile of the Research Councils and that they provide a coherent picture of research in the UK. We have heard during this inquiry about the importance of ensuring that other countries understand the Research Council structure in the UK and perceive it to be co-ordinated. The FCO told us that "it is essential that the UK is, and is seen by other countries to be, joined up."[72] Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the MRC, acknowledged this, saying that "we are increasingly recognising the importance of working together within RCUK to brand UK science collectively".[73] We hope that the RCUK overseas offices will act as points of contact for researchers abroad and will establish a single RCUK brand. By doing so, we hope that the Research Councils will be able to overcome the misgivings of organisations such as the Royal Society, who feel that the structure of the Research Councils is overly complicated for overseas researchers and prevents the presentation of a coherent face to the international community.[74]

38. We welcome the establishment of more RCUK offices abroad. These offices should present a coherent picture of UK science and be worthwhile contact points for international collaborators. We recommend that RCUK clarify how these offices will be funded, how their performance will be monitored and how their activities will be reported.

Funding

LEVEL OF FUNDING

39. It is difficult to ascertain the exact amount spent by the Research Councils on international activities. Several Research Councils do not operate specific mechanisms for international collaboration but rather support work that has an international element through normal responsive mode funding. Professor Sir Keith O'Nions told us that "Almost half of everything that we do already has an international dimension."[75] Some Councils do, however, run explicitly international schemes. In 2006, the Research Councils spent approximately £262 million on international schemes and activities, not including international work supported by responsive mode grants. Of this £262 million, approximately £198 million was spent on subscriptions to international facilities or programmes as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Research Council Subscriptions to International Programmes/Facilities (2006)

Programme/Facility Research Councils Paying Subscription Approx Annual Funding
Human Frontier Science Programme MRC, BBSRC£985 k
European Molecular Biology Organisation MRC, BBSRC£1.4 m
International Agency for Research on Cancer MRC£768 k
Institut Laue-Langevin PPARC (now STFC)£13.7 m
European Synchroton Radiation Facility PPARC (now STFC)£7.2 m
CERNPPARC (now STFC) £78.6 m
European Space Agency PPARC (now STFC)£59.7m
European Southern Observatory PPARC (now STFC)£23.1 m
Other international partnerships eg. GEMINI, AAO, JCMT, ING, EISCAT, ATLAS, CMS, SNO, AUGER, GEO600 PPARC (now STFC)£12.5 m

Source: GSIF, Strategy for international engagement in research and development, p 48-49

40. The remainder of the funding for international schemes was spent as illustrated in Table 2. The table does not take account of ESRC schemes such as bilateral agreements, 'matchmaking' schemes, visits programmes or review of international data sources that did not have allocated funds in 2006.

Table 2: Research Council International Programmes (2006)

Scheme/Programme Description/objective Approx annual funding
Research Council involvement in ERA-NET The Research Councils are involved in a wide range of ERA-NET activities and projects with partners in the EU and other associated countries. The objective of the ERA-NET scheme is to improve co-operation and co-ordination through the networking of research activities and the mutual opening of national and regional research programmes. £8.1 m
EUROCORESThe scheme provides a mechanism for multinational collaboration within Europe in basic research bringing together national funding agencies and national research organisations to provide a critical mass of expertise and resources £ 3.14 m
European Science Foundation (ESF) Range of networking schemes, conferences etc. for researchers across Europe. Delivered by AHRC, BBSRC, EPSRC, ESRC, MRC, NERC, PPARC £680 k
EuroHORCs Money Follows Researcher scheme Allows Research Council grant holders in the UK who are moving to an institution in another European country to apply to take the remainder of their grant with them. Variable
Agreements with international partner agencies RCs have co-operation agreements with a range of agencies, largely in the far East to sponsor N+N meetings to encourage information exchange between researchers and the planning of future collaborations. Variable (about £100k)
BBSRC International Scientific Interchange Scheme To allow BBSRC-grant holders and researchers at BBSRC-sponsored institutes to initiate and develop international activity through visits, workshops and bringing world-leading researchers to the UK. This scheme has global coverage. £260 k
BBSRC Partnering Awards To allow BBSRC-grant holders and researchers at BBSRC-sponsored institutes to initiate and develop long-term collaborative activity over 4 years covering exchanges workshops and visits with Japan, China, and India. £300 k
EPSRC INTERACTTo initiate and develop collaborations through workshops, visits etc. in China, India or Japan. £312 k
EPSRC Visiting Fellows and Visiting Researchers To bring expertise into the UK for the purpose of research collaboration and sharing of knowledge. Delivered by EPSRC with a global coverage. £ 750 k
EPSRC Overseas Travel Grants To permit travel by UK researchers to overseas research institutes for gaining insight into current research programmes. Delivered by EPSRC with a global coverage. £472 k
Access to three UK major facilities STFC's facilities are available to international users subject to successful peer review. The facilities also offer EC Transnational Access funded opportunities, also subject to successful peer review. £1.5 m

(variable)

PPARC Research fellowships All awards are open to international applicants who wish to take up their fellowships at UK institutions. £ 2 m
EU FP6 Design Studies Programmes Councils such as PPARC provided matching funding to UK groups to enable them to benefit from FP 6 awards to European consortia to enable to participate in design studies for future research facilities such as the linear collider, extremely large optical infrared telescope, and the square kilometre array for radio astronomy. £ 3 m

Source: GSIF, Strategy for international engagement in research and development, p 47-48

PROBLEMS WITH FUNDING

Double Jeopardy

41. One of the problems associated with funding international work is double jeopardy, where a collaborative proposal has to be peer reviewed or assessed by funding bodies in the UK and in other countries. The probability of failure multiplies with the number of approvals required and the fact that agency and country timings for calls can be different. Professor Ian Diamond, Chair of RCUK Executive Group and Chief Executive of ESRC, told us that:

If you imagine a researcher at the University of Oxford…wanted to work with someone at the University of Mannheim, until two years ago, they would have had to apply to ESRC from Oxford, to the DFG [Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft] from Mannheim, and waited for two separate peer review processes to work. Had they a colleague also, say from Belgium, they would have had three separate review processes and suddenly you are waiting for the metaphorical equivalent of three crowns on a one-armed bandit in order to get the research project to go.[76]

Professor Sir Keith O'Nions told us that the Research Councils were working hard to develop Memoranda of Understanding with other countries to overcome the problem.[77] ESRC, for example, has fourteen agreements with different countries to remove double jeopardy and is working to remove it completely.[78] These schemes are often operated under a 70:30 rule, where only one country's review process is applied provided that no more than 30% of the funding goes to the other country. The University of Sheffield says that "such schemes should be encouraged for a broader range of countries".[79] RCUK acknowledges that the Councils have taken a "piecemeal approach to a difficult problem", although the Research Councils "remain committed to tackling this [double jeopardy] through building agreements with overseas funders to establish a single application, single peer review and single decision making process."[80]

42. Several submissions raised the possibility of the Research Councils launching joint calls with their international partners or at least synchronising the timing of calls to reduce difficulties. The FCO encouraged the Research Councils to "look more closely" at this option, whilst the Royal Society emphasised that other countries were already taking this approach.[81] Using the example of the collaboration between the Germany Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with India, the Royal Society told us that "Many European RCs have launched strategic, targeted joint schemes or built joint laboratories in specific areas to push forward joint research in topics where partner countries are perceived to have advantages and/or cutting edge capabilities".[82] Some of the Research Councils are already exploring this avenue. The EPSRC, for example, has launched joint funding opportunities with the National Science Foundation in the US.[83] Other Councils are more cautious. NERC, for example, is concerned that joint funding calls could result in significantly more support flowing out more than in, disadvantaging UK researchers.[84]

43. We welcome agreements made to reduce double jeopardy but encourage further work in this area, including increasing the number of joint calls with other institutions.

Use of responsive mode application method

44. During this inquiry, we have heard criticism of the use of responsive mode applications for relatively small amounts of money for travel grants or workshops. The UK Computing Research Committee (UKCRC) told us that funds for travel grants, workshops, and visiting researchers have to be applied for in a form identical to that for other larger responsive mode grants.[85] It said that it would prefer another application method with a quicker turn-around time that did not suffer from delays. The University of Sheffield, Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society of Edinburgh reiterated these concerns, concluding that the responsive mode application method for funding for international networking workshops and visiting researchers was "overly cumbersome".[86]

45. Given the variety of approaches taken by the Research Councils, these criticisms do not apply equally to all of the Councils. STFC (previously PPARC) funds rolling grants that enable researchers to use some of the funding they receive to travel abroad and form partnerships without having to submit a separate application for funding travel.[87] STFC's use of rolling grants to fund travel without the need for separate applications should be considered by the other Councils as an example of best practice.

Follow-on funding & strategic funding

46. We have also received evidence indicating concern at a lack of follow-on funding for international collaboration, for example when stimulated by a Research Council networking event or Research Council supported visit. The UKCRC states that although EPSRC funds groups of researchers to visit overseas institutions, following this up with collaborative projects is difficult because grants are not sufficient to support larger-scale projects.[88] A similar view was expressed by Rothamsted Research who said that "Continuity in funding programmes and links between the various mechanisms available are poorly defined."[89]

47. Follow-on funding is closely linked to strategic funding, which is at the heart of the issues involved in the Research Councils' support for international activities: whether Research Councils should fund proposals because they involve collaborations with countries that they have identified as strategically important or whether they should only fund the best science. Professor Palmer from the University of Warwick gave us an example:

The University of Warwick was in discussion with KAIST [Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology] - KAIST is one of the senior research laboratories in South Korea. It was a collaboration that was being initiated in the area of semi-conductors […] The proposal was that we should forge this relationship and the initial project was a £4 million project. At that time, EPSRC had a memorandum of understanding with South Korea to promote collaboration between EPSRC and its activities and KAIST in South Korea. Immediately, almost at a stroke, the South Koreans produced their £2 million. We went through 12 months of negotiation with EPSRC in competition with responsive mode grant applications rewriting proposals and, in the end, it was rejected. […] I went back to South Korea and to KAIST the institute there about three years ago and they still remembered it and they still remembered the frustrations of trying to collaborate with the UK…[90]

In this case, the best science principle won out and the proposal was deemed to be unsuitable by peer review. In the future however, what if the RCUK China office is involved in negotiations regarding a proposal for collaboration with a Chinese institution that has the potential to be a world-leading player in five years time? In the face of competition from France and Germany, should the Research Councils fund this project in order to ensure a relationship in the future? This question of strategic funding is inevitably linked to follow-on funding. If the researchers met at a Research Council networking event or on a visit, do the Research Councils have any obligation to continue funding the collaboration? Where does follow-on funding start and end?

48. Professor Keith Mason told us that "If there is one area in which we need to work in the future it is to get some clarity as to why we are engaged in international collaborations. There is clearly a scientific reason […] but there also increasingly might be strategic or economic reasons".[91] The Research Councils need to clarify what their purpose is in funding international activities and how their responsibilities relate to the work of other organisations such as DIUS, FCO and the academies. We have heard disappointment from researchers who have not been able to find follow-up funding for collaborations stimulated by Research Council activities. Researchers should be made aware of the potential limitations of Research Council funding. As mentioned by Professor Palmer, it is damaging to the UK's research reputation if the UK is perceived to promise to develop a relationship and then fails to deliver appropriate funding to support that promise.

49. The RCUK should clarify the reasons why the Research Councils are engaged in international collaborations. It should outline when and why the Research Councils should provide strategic or follow-on funding and how such funding relates to their aim of funding the best science.

A DEDICATED FUNDING STREAM?

50. The question has been raised as to whether the Research Councils should have a dedicated budget for funding international activities. The Royal Society told us that "If it is an agreed aim of UK foreign policy to establish ourselves as scientific partners of choice of priority countries around the world, then the RCs should be prepared to back this up with a dedicated budget."[92] The University of Leeds agreed that a dedicated funding stream would be useful for setting up international research links and Professor Palmer from the University of Warwick told us that "without […] specific funding streams, international collaboration is and has been very difficult."[93]

51. RCUK argues that a dedicated budget for international collaboration would provide an artificial constraint to the amount of collaborative activity and could consequentially be counter-productive. It also states that not providing a dedicated funding stream for international work means that proposals with an international element compete directly with the best national research, ensuring that only high quality proposals are funded.[94] Professor Diamond reiterated this, saying that "Our policy has always been not to say that we will have an international pot but simply to say that we will remove barriers to international collaboration at any time, and then use scientific excellence as the criteria."[95]

52. Professor Sir Keith O'Nions told us that the majority of funding for international activity was embedded. He did insist, however, that the Research Councils "need to plan for some financial flexibility; because in numerous cases it will be necessary to earmark a particular increment of money either to start a new relationship with a country where we do not have strong relationships, or jointly to fund a particular project."[96] Some of the Research Councils already take this approach. Dr Randal Richards told us that EPSRC has created a dedicated budget to catalyse international collaboration because some countries will not support responsive mode applications and require dedicated budgets.[97] As seen in Table 2, BBSRC also has specific funds for interchange schemes and partnering awards.

53. A dedicated fund for international activities would have benefits. It could be used for strategic funding purposes or for follow-up funding, overcoming the problems outlined in paragraph 47. The application procedures could be streamlined and funding would not necessarily need to be in the form of responsive mode grants (paragraph 44). It would also enable the Research Councils to track how much collaborative funding was spent with different countries and could give their international work a higher profile. This would help the FCO, which says that partner countries are not necessarily aware of the extent of their existing collaborations with the UK and, because UK funding is fragmented, the Research Councils are often unable to provide information regarding the amounts spent on funding collaborations with individual countries. This lack of information on both sides has implications for 'selling' the UK as a collaborative partner for science and could be overcome if the FCO were able to use information relating to a central fund.[98] A dedicated fund for international work would not be diverting money away from basic research but rather would be directing money to basic research through another mechanism. As Professor Lorna Casselton from the Royal Society pointed out, "the money is still funding UK researchers but it is ensuring that they can then make contact with overseas groups who will equally have dedicated funds to do that collaborative research."[99]

54. There are two main arguments against creating a fund for international activities. First, that it would differentiate international work from general research, whereas international work should be embedded in research. However, we do not envisage that a dedicated fund for international activities would replace the general responsive mode funding for research, splitting grants into those that are UK-based or those that involve international collaborations. Rather we believe that a dedicated fund could be used to provide a centralised, fast way of funding travel grants, visits, fellowships and networks. Secondly, it could be argued that assigning money to international activities might mean jeopardising quality of research. Professor Colin Blakemore told us that "committing dedicated budgets to any particular scheme can sometimes be a hostage to fortune if the budget is not met with appropriate opportunities of high quality."[100] In the current internationally competitive environment, we believe that this is a risk that the Research Councils should be prepared to take.

55. The majority of funding for international activities is embedded within Research Council budgets. We recommend that the Research Councils increase the flexibility of funding within their general budgets for international activities and simplify the process for cross-Council funding and long-term funding for international work. We believe that the benefits of a dedicated funding stream for international activities such as travel grants and visiting fellowships outweigh the potential drawbacks. We recommend that the Research Councils establish a small central fund for travel grants and visiting fellowships to be administered by RCUK using simple application methods.

Impact of strategy on mobility and research careers

56. International mobility of researchers helps to share expertise and cross-fertilise ideas, and enables UK researchers to benefit from international training and world-leading facilities. Evidence Ltd explains that "The UK can acquire knowledge of what China and Iran are doing, albeit belatedly, by reading what they publish. It can only find out how and why if it actively collaborates and, particularly, if UK researchers travel to and work in China and Iran."[101] Professor Palmer from the University of Warwick told us that visiting or working in other countries means that "academics come back with that international dimension, with that frontier exciting research and build that into their postgraduate programmes and their undergraduate programmes".[102] The desirability of experience abroad obviously varies from discipline to discipline and institution to institution. We believe, however, that the UK should ensure that there are no obstacles to the free-flowing movement of researchers into and out of the UK.

57. There are two issues that have surfaced during our inquiry. First, why the level of outward mobility (UK researchers going abroad) is relatively low, and secondly, whether the UK is sufficiently able to retain long-term talented students and researchers who move to the UK initially for a short period of time. In 2004, concerns about the low level of outward international student mobility from the UK compared with other European countries prompted the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and other funding bodies to commission a report, International Student Mobility.[103] This report analysed the statistics for scheme-led mobility programmes, the arrangements at UK higher education institutions for both scheme-led and other international mobility programmes, and attitudes to mobility among staff and students. It found that reasons for low levels of outward mobility included limited language skills. Most non-mobile final-year students gave a general lack of foreign language knowledge as a key factor in their decision not to study abroad.[104]

58. The low level of outward international student mobility combined with a high number of inward bound students means that the UK is a net attractor of researchers.[105] According to the OSI, approximately 40% of doctoral students in the UK are from overseas.[106] There is concern, however, that these students do not remain the UK. NOCS says that the UK "struggles to compete e.g. with Germany, whose more generous pension and other benefit arrangements tend to lock researchers into their system."[107] There is also evidence that postdoctoral researchers only stay in the UK for the duration of their research contracts and tend to return to their home countries to pursue research at a higher level. The Higher Education Policy Institution report, Migration of Academic Staff to and from the UK, states that "researchers from European countries are beginning to treat the UK as UK researchers regard the USA, coming here to begin their careers and establish their reputations, and then returning to their home countries to continue their careers."[108]

59. The Research Councils UK Research Careers and Diversity Strategy sets out the Councils' aspirations for enhancing the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for the best researchers. It states that the Research Councils recognise that, in order to ensure high quality research that will benefit the economy, the UK must draw on "the best researchers from all groups in society and from overseas."[109] We have been told that this sentiment will be echoed in the forthcoming RCUK international strategy, which will articulate "the need to promote the movement of researchers to and from the UK - both to contribute to the Government's agenda of making the UK one of the best places in the world to undertake research and to help UK researchers seize opportunities for working overseas."[110] The Research Councils already support international mobility in a variety of ways, including postgraduate training in other countries, individual research fellowships, visiting fellowships, overseas travel grants, networks of researchers and through collaboration on grants. The Research Councils UK Research Careers and Diversity Strategy outlines the Research Councils' future plans in this area, such as widening the eligibility of non-UK residents for Research Council studentships and reviewing the Dorothy Hodgkin Postgraduate Award Scheme for doctoral candidates from the developing world.[111]

60. The topic of mobility has also become increasingly important at a European level. The Research Councils, through UKRO, support researchers who wish to apply for Framework Programme 7 schemes such as the Marie Curie fellowships (paragraph 106). The Research Councils have also been involved in the development of the doctoral cycle of the Bologna process, which aims to create a European higher education area by making degrees more comparable across the EU.[112]

61. Submissions have presented a range of views relating to Research Council support for international mobility. The UKCRC and Royal Astronomical Society are relatively positive about the current state of affairs. The UKCRC says that there appears to be no need to stimulate international mobility of researchers, whilst the Royal Astronomical Society states that current Research Council policies encourage mobility but in an unplanned and unintended way.[113] Evidence Ltd. says that the situation could be worse but that the Research Councils could improve: "UK research mobility is better than some countries but is not exceptional in European terms, and the UK is therefore losing the opportunity to gain from making contacts with and learning lessons from others."[114] Rothamsted Research presents a wholly negative view of the Councils, saying that "There is little encouragement and active support for the mobility of research council employed scientists and engineers."[115] Two organisations argued that it is unclear whether Research Council activities have had any impact on mobility or not. The Royal Society told us that "It is not clear that RC international policies (or lack of them) have any particular impact on postdoctoral mobility."[116] The University and College Union states that "international 'early career' mobility occurs irrespective of the specific policies of the individual research councils."[117] Finally, the University of Warwick held up EPSRC as a model of best practice, saying that its work had had a substantial impact in this area and encouraging a consistent approach across the Councils. [118]

62. There are several challenges to mobility such as family commitments, the need for jobs for partners, and language barriers. It is difficult to know to what extent these challenges should be taken account of by the Research Councils. In relation to providing jobs for partners for example, witnesses such as Professor Palmer from the University of Warwick and Dr Jones from the Royal Society said that this was not the responsibility of the Research Councils.[119] In other areas, however, we have been told that the Research Councils have a responsibility and should alter their policies accordingly. The University and College Union stated that "the current mobility support policies of the research councils […] need to be underpinned by a stronger equality dimension as opportunities for certain groups of staff (e.g. women) and for researchers from particular parts of the world (e.g. developing countries) remain unequal."[120]

63. With regard to language training, Professor Diamond from ESRC and Professor Blakemore from MRC insisted that such training was not a principal responsibility of the Research Councils.[121] Dr Randal Richards from EPSRC emphasised that the lingua franca in the sciences was English and this was reiterated by Professor Sir Keith O'Nions.[122] Professor Sir Keith O'Nions acknowledged, however, that an inability to speak a country's language created difficulties in everyday life, if not within the laboratory.[123] There seems to be a split between the sciences and the humanities in this area. The ESRC, AHRC and HEFCE have commissioned five new language based area studies centres to enable young researchers to develop language skills.[124]

64. We are concerned that the Research Councils lack sufficient information regarding international mobility to make well-informed decisions. Professor Sir Keith O'Nions told us that he was "not aware of serious gender difficulties at the early career stages, PhDs, post-doctoral, early career" but acknowledged that this might be due to his "lack of awareness".[125] He also said that he did not have an analysis of whether the lack of mobility of UK researchers was linked to language skills.[126] We understand that the Councils are undertaking a study of the extent to which PhD students and researchers in the UK gain experience of working abroad during the course of their training and employment.[127] We encourage the Councils to expand this study to explore the reasons underpinning the decisions of researchers to work abroad or stay in the UK and to alter their policies accordingly. It is necessary, for the health of the research base, and to comply with the new positive duty for public authorities to promote gender equality, for the Research Councils and the Government to understand the barriers that women in research face and take such steps as are necessary to ensure they are overcome.

65. This discussion of mobility has so far focused upon the traditional idea of travelling to another country, spending time there and then returning. With the advent of the internet, researchers can increasingly become "virtually" mobile. The University and College Union defines virtual mobility as including "use of the internet, e-libraries and video conferencing, as alternatives to physical relocation".[128] CEH predicts that in the future an increasing amount of research will be undertaken collaboratively through networks of world-leading organisations in virtual institutes and the Research Councils need to be ready to meet this challenge.[129] The Research Councils appear aware of the challenge, although it is unclear how they intend to meet it. Professor Ian Diamond, Chief Executive of ESRC, told us that "Communication is such now that people can collaborate […] using relatively short visits of face to face and a large amount of electronic communication and that can work really very well, and so you do not need to move lock stock and barrel."[130]

66. We are concerned that Research Council schemes to improve mobility are not working well. This may be because they are not sufficiently visible or because they fail to address the challenges faced by researchers such as familiarity with foreign languages and family commitments. We recommend that RCUK, monitored by the Director General of Science and Innovation, consult stakeholders on how policies relating to mobility could be improved.


25   Q 1  Back

26   GSIF, Global Science and Innovation Forum: a strategy for international engagement in research and development, October 2006, p 19.  Back

27   Q 16 Back

28   Ev 108 Back

29   Q 261 Back

30   Q 161  Back

31   Q 216 Back

32   Ev 41, 68, 86, 53 Back

33   Q 238  Back

34   Q 261  Back

35   Ev 109 Back

36   As above. Back

37   Ev 51 Back

38   Ev 152 Back

39   Q 219  Back

40   Ev 63 Back

41   Ev 159 Back

42   Ev 91 Back

43   Ev 53 Back

44   Ev 62 Back

45   Q 261 Back

46   Q 265 Back

47   Q 266 Back

48   Ev 53 Back

49   Ev 58 Back

50   Ev 81 Back

51   Q 140  Back

52   Qq 95-96 Back

53   Qq 210-211  Back

54   Q 29  Back

55   Ev 68 Back

56   Ev 55 Back

57   Q 161  Back

58   Q 96 Back

59   Ev 96 Back

60   Ev 151 Back

61   Science and Technology Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2002-03, UK Science and Europe: Value for Money?, HC 386-I, p 37 Back

62   Ev 69 Back

63   Ev 75 Back

64   Ev 72 Back

65   Ev 130 Back

66   Ev 53 Back

67   As above. Back

68   Q 69  Back

69   Q 68 Back

70   Q 55  Back

71   Ev 94 Back

72   Ev 53 Back

73   Q 38  Back

74   Ev 60 Back

75   Q 258  Back

76   Q 3 Back

77   Q 240  Back

78   Q 2 Back

79   Ev 58 Back

80   Ev 93 Back

81   Ev 54 Back

82   Ev 60 Back

83   Ev 120 Back

84   Ev 136 Back

85   Ev 47 Back

86   Ev 58, 68, 162 Back

87   Ev 145 Back

88   Ev 47 Back

89   Ev 57 Back

90   Q 147 Back

91   Q 18 Back

92   Ev 60 Back

93   Ev 78, Q 147 Back

94   Ev 91 Back

95   Q 42  Back

96   Q 238 Back

97   Q 42  Back

98   Ev 54 Back

99   Q 187 Back

100   Q 44 Back

101   Ev 42 Back

102   Q 114 Back

103   HEFCE et al., International student mobility, July 2004  Back

104   HEFCE et al., International student mobility, July 2004, p 39 Back

105   HEPI, Migration of Academic Staff to and from the UK, October 2005, p 2 Back

106   Ev 153 Back

107   Ev 77 Back

108   HEPI, Migration of Academic Staff to and from the UK, October 2005, p 12 Back

109   RCUK, Research Councils UK Research Careers and Diversity Strategy, January 2007, p 2 Back

110   Ev 104 Back

111   RCUK, Research Councils UK Research Careers and Diversity Strategy, January 2007, p 14 Back

112   Ev 105 Back

113   Ev 46, 69 Back

114   Ev 43 Back

115   Ev 57 Back

116   Ev 62 Back

117   Ev 82 Back

118   Ev 56 Back

119   Qq 166, 224 Back

120   Ev 82 Back

121   Qq 90, 93 Back

122   Qq 91, 241 Back

123   Q 241 Back

124   Ev 122 Back

125   Q 246 Back

126   Q 241 Back

127   RCUK, Research Councils UK Research Careers and Diversity Strategy, January 2007, p 14 Back

128   Ev 82 Back

129   Ev 86 Back

130   Q 99  Back


 
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