Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents


Memorandum 35

Submission from the Board of the Regional Studies Association

INTRODUCTORY REMARKS

  We were very pleased to have the opportunity to make a response to this consultation in our positions of Board Member and Chief Executive of, the Regional Studies Association. In making some comments we have chosen to concentrate on the issue of the case for a regional science policy versus a national science policy and whether the Haldane principle needs updating. We hope that you will find our comments constructive and helpful.

BACKGROUND—THE REGIONAL STUDIES ASSOCIATION

  The Regional Studies Association is a learned society working at the interface between regional development, policy and research. We were founded in the early 1960s in direct competition to the American-founded Regional Science Association (now Regional Science Association International). Our Association was uniquely different to this organisation in that, coming at a time when the British Government was seeking to introduce a National Plan with concomitant regional planning bodies and interventions, the founding members were clear that a part of the role of the new organisation would be to interface with those in the policy and practice communities and to seek to inform, through the provision of evidence, the decisions that were taken. A key part of this aim was the deliberate inclusion of non-academics within the membership body at both individual and corporate levels. This background flavours much of what the Association thinks is important today.

The Association today is very much international in membership, reach and ambition. Our publishing programme is international particularly through our two journals, Regional Studies and Spatial Economic Analysis; our major annual conference takes place in continental Europe each year (Leuven, Belgium, April 2009) and the Association has organised, and will continue to organise, events in North America. Our improved financial position over time means that we are now able to fund research networking activity and are currently supporting fifteen groups on topics such as Mediterranean and Balkan Regional Development; Theorising Regional Development: the theoretical background of new concepts in regional studies; Green Regional Innovation: Entrepreneurship and Governance and Bridging old and new divisions in regional governance between "core" and "periphery" in Europe's East and West. The Association is very keen that no-one be excluded from its activities and to that end has introduced territorial membership pricing and conference attendance fees for its annual conference based on GDP on a price parity basis. We have recently launched a new and ambitious Development Plan setting out our aims for the years to 2013. Key among these aims is the influencing of policy debate and practice. We have attached a copy of the plan to give you more information but in short we are to:

    —  Promote the use and uptake of regional studies research and knowledge in public and political fora so as to influence policy and practice;

    —  Provide policy makers, academics, practitioner, public bodies and opinion formers with informed views about regional issues;

    —  Engage with the media to ensure that views from the Association are represented and that information on regional studies research and knowledge is readily available; and,

    —  Encourage debate across nation states at the international scale.

  The comments which follow are couched very much in terms of our field of expertise and interest—the relationship between space, place and regional development. They also draw on papers published within Regional Studies in a special issue entitled "Governance, Science Policy and Regions" (Volume 41, Number 8th November 2007).

EVIDENCE

  Our submission here is primarily focused on "the case for a regional science policy (versus national science policy) and whether the Haldane principle needs updating", and the related issue of the role of different stakeholders, particularly at sub-national level, in "determining UK science and engineering policy".

A core issue and concern of RSA members for many years has been the uneven distribution of R&D and innovation between regions in the UK. Work published by the association in its journal Regional Studies over many years has mapped out these uneven distributions and some of the causes within the UK. Indeed one of the first published papers on this topic was published in Regional Studies in 1970 (Buswell and Lewis). In particular the role of central government in establishing its own R&D facilities, government procurement contracts, and higher education policy have all played a part in the creation of a concentration of R&D in the South of the UK, with relatively poor levels of performance in the North and periphery. The current pattern is the legacy of policies over many decades—Carol Heim(1988) showed from public records how decisions on the locations of public research facilities in the 1950s were biased in favour of the South for reasons which would now be politically unacceptable. The combination of public research facilities and elite universities in the South has greatly strengthened the science infrastructure in those regions. In the North and periphery of the UK the weakness of the regional innovation system is a major problem in the economic performance of these regions, and limits the UK's ability to match the national level of R&D in GDP of our main competitor nations, our innovativeness in manufactured products in particular, and ultimately national productivity. Science and research in the regions outside of the golden triangle is heavily focused on the universities and a weak public sector combined with a weak private sector limits the possibilities for endogenous development.

  In this the UK can be contrasted with a number of other countries—Germany and Finland for example where both public and private research activity is much more widely distributed and also at a higher absolute level. In federal systems of government such as Germany, but also the US, Australia and increasingly Spain, there is often a greater role for the regions or states in research and science policy, and there is a stronger link between the investments made in regions and the development of regional innovation systems. The UK is becoming a partial federal system, with the devolved nations pursuing their own science and innovation policies, but with an ambivalence in England as to the need for a regional role in science. Thus Scotland is in a position to develop its own science strategy encompassing public research, university research infrastructure and economic development incentives, but the Northern regions of England lack these powers and see little direct support from national government for increased science. The six Science Cities could provide such a focus but as yet have seen no new money, other than that available through the RDAs.

  Thus we would argue that there is a need for a less uneven distribution of research in the UK, which implies a change in science policy to a position that favours some new investment in those regions which are currently lagging. There are three principal issues that need to be addressed in that though: the difficulty of relocating existing research activity, the importance of critical mass, and the challenge to the Haldane principle that decisions on science investments should be made on scientific grounds by scientists and not for political reasons.

  First, on the issue of relocation, there has been some relocation of R&D in recent years, although little of this has benefited the regions with low R&D. Indeed the privatisation of the utilities and some government research centres saw a reduction of employment in research in the peripheral regions, with the North West and North East particularly losing out. Overall government has reduced its own internal research activity in recent years placing a stronger emphasis on the universities to undertake basic research leading to long term economic spillovers. In many of our competitor countries we see government playing a stronger role in supporting the development of new technologies, and this often being supported by regional governments—whether the German Laender, Catalonia, US states or Australian states such as Queensland and Victoria. Both Catalonia and Victoria have been involved in funding synchrotron developments for example. As part of a long term investment in science government could look at new regionally devolved infrastructures which complement the work of the universities and help to underpin regional development strategies.

  Another argument that is often levelled at any discussion of greater decentralisation of research is the need for critical mass. It is clear that parts of the UK do indeed have critical mass in international terms through a concentration of public, private and university research. Given that there is an acknowledged need to increase the level of R&D in the UK, which may imply additional public sector investment, then should additional resources be placed in these existing concentrations—on the basis that economies of scale and scope will produce better outcomes—or should they be used to develop new concentrations elsewhere. The recent evidence from the RAE suggests that excellence can be found in most places, at least within the University system, but there is no real evidence that further concentration will yield better scientific outcomes. To some degree further concentration can lead to diseconomies of scale as all the usual consequences of congestion kick in. High living costs, high labour turnover, long commutes, and limited space for new businesses may reduce the long term impact of new investment. Building new concentrations of research in the English provincial cities, linked for example with the Science City initiative may offer greater potential for transformation and impacts on productivity.

  This then raises questions about the kind of science that should be located in different regions and therefore the decision making processes involved and who should be involved in those processes, and inevitably the Haldane principle, where it should apply, and whether a modified version is needed. The Haldane principle is generally only applied to research in the research councils sector, and whilst there has been some shift towards politically determined programmes in selected areas the principle of academics deciding on the award of funds still holds. This principle need not be altered dramatically to achieve a rebalancing of research between regions as much of the emphasis needs to be placed on creating new centres and facilities outside of the research council remit. Within the university sector there remains scope for some capacity building investments, even within a continued system of blind refereeing by academic peers. Scotland's science strategy co-exists with the national policy through the research councils, and similar initiatives operate in other countries where regions have a stronger role in infrastructure, but where national science policies still operate on a non-political basis.

  Inevitably there will be much debate about these issues, and even within the Regional Studies Association there may not be a consensus on these points. However, we believe there are principles here that have not really been challenged by any evidence that the current policy is best for the UK as a whole, and that it would be beneficial to the country if that debate was made more public.

REFERENCE

  1.  Development Plan 2008-2013, Regional Studies Association, 2008, Seaford, "Governance, Science Policy and Regions", Regional Studies, Volume 41, Number 8, November 2007.

January 2009







 
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