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

Memorandum 43

Submission from Universities UK

  1.  Universities UK is delighted to contribute to the Select Committee enquiry into "Putting Science and Engineering at the heart of Government Policy". As the major representative body for the higher education sector, Universities UK has 133 members who are the executive heads of the universities in the UK. Universities UK works closely with policy makers and key stakeholders to advance the interests of universities and higher education.

2.  This submission indicates the considerable work universities are undertaking to support and promote Science and Engineering as part of Government Policy. These areas include: development of the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF); increased knowledge transfer activities; encouraging an interest of careers in science and engineering to students; skills development for those already studying; and consideration of the regional spread of science and engineering departments. Work on the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) also forms part of Higher Education's contribution to this agenda.

  3.  It is essential that public policy is underpinned by high quality research and evidence. Universities UK therefore, agrees with the Council for Science & Technology[172] (CST) that we need a healthy engagement between academics and policy makers. UK higher education is well placed to contribute to and inform public policy making. The UK is home to some of the best research universities and institutions, representing 1% of the global population but producing 9% of the world's scientific publications and 12% of scientific citations. The recent Research Assessment Exercise confirmed the UK's leading global position, with over half of submissions (54%) judged to be either "world leading" (17% in 4*) or "internationally excellent" (37% in 3*) across a broad range of subject areas.

  4.  From the university perspective, through mechanisms such as the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) [in England], there has been a step change in knowledge exchange activities between universities and the public and private sectors, which has changed the culture of institutions and resulted in real economic and social benefit to the UK

  5.  The Higher Education—Business and Community Interaction Survey for 2006-7 showed that income from collaborative research rose by 12 per cent in the UK to nearly £670 million. Projects with Research Councils UK as the public funder accounted for the greatest share and increase in collaborative research. Spending on contract research increased by 20% with an associated increase of 12% in the number of interactions. The largest part of this increase was non-commercial partners, accounting for over £446 million of the £783 million total. Combined, all research-related activities totalled over £1.4 billion in 2006-07.

  6.  Despite the progress made by universities over the last 10 years we acknowledge the CST's concern that "engagement between academics and policy makers in the UK is not as strong as it might be". In doing this it will be important that we can continue to encourage culture change in institutions and work towards greater clarity and coherence in the relationship and interaction between academia, Government and professional bodies..

  7.  On the government side progress has also been made. Every government department now has a Chief Scientific Advisor and this presents an opportunity that did not used to exist. There do however remain some problems on the "pull side". Government, both national and regional, needs to get better at highlighting the opportunities and communicating the entry points for academic advice. There is sometimes a perception in academia that the policy process in government is difficult to penetrate or a closed shop.

  8.  Intergovernmental/academic exchange is a very beneficial process, however, mechanisms to facilitate and support this could be strengthened. Some academics, for example, find it difficult because of a lack of support by civil servants. Greater flexibility would also be beneficial. It would be easier for academics to work in government on a part-time basis in order for them to remain engaged in the university eg to supervise PhD students, and to keep their knowledge up to date. There also needs to be a clear and transparent mechanism for issues such conflict of interest, which can often be a concern for academics wishing to inform public policy

  9.  Programmes for civil servants to be seconded to universities, so that they have a better understanding of HE sector, would also be helpful. Most civil servants have the "student experience" point of view of universities (studying undergraduate/postgraduate courses), which provides at best a partial view of how modern universities work.


  10.  The importance of higher education informing public policy making is not limited to science and engineering. The British Academy report published in September 2008, Punching our weight: the humanities and social sciences in public policy making, found that researchers and policy makers agree that opportunities are being missed, because policy makers are not exploiting all that humanities and social science research offers. Universities UK agrees that more funding needs to be dedicated to supporting long-term knowledge development and longitudinal research that can offer a range of different solutions and perspectives to potential problems, as opposed to short-term research designed to meet immediate demands. We would also welcome moves by government departments to make their research priorities clearer and enter into timely dialogue with the academic community to ensure that they can work together effectively.

11.  As highlighted in the joint Universities UK, RCUK and UNICO publication, Impacts: successes from UK research, investment in research improves the relative international and overall innovation performance of the UK economy. Significant innovations emerge from all research disciplines, including financial services, and arts and humanities research which underpins the UK's creative industries, and contributes £11.4 billion to the UK balance of trade.


  12.  We endorse the Engineering Technology Board conclusion[173] that, if we are to increase interest in engineering and technology as a career in the long term, the government, employers, institutions, policy-makers, funders and other stakeholders need a greater recognition of the need for interventions designed to interest and enthuse young people—especially women—in engineering at a much younger age. Higher education institutions have a role to play in encouraging young people to study these subjects, but a coherent, strategic approach agreed by all stakeholders is required.


  13.  We agree with the Engineering Technology Board on the importance of upskilling the UK's workforce through training, development and lifelong learning, and that employers have a key role in developing their employees. Higher education institutions aim to continue working with employers nationally, regionally and locally to develop relationships and solutions to the challenges we face collectively.


  14.  Universities UK welcome the contribution of the Technology Strategy Board to the development of policy relating to science and engineering, and the work of the Science & Innovation Councils in developing regional strategies. Going forward we consider this approach to be the right one—the development of regional strategies to implement national policy.

15.  Given the reduction in the level of funding for Regional Development Agencies we would expect to see those structures that are already in place being utilised to take forward policy development and implementation. Regional Development Agencies add value for many regions in the area of knowledge transfer, particularly through their understanding of the company base, and can also play an important role in facilitating, encouraging and supporting relationships between universities and business. That is, embedding policy in practice.

  16.  Universities UK accepts the suggestion of the RCUK 2008 Review of UK Physics that, due to confusion over whether the government has any form of regional development policy in terms of where facilities should be located, DIUS and BERR should consult on a restatement of the Haldane Principle for the modern era. However, we consider that those best placed to make decisions on the allocation of research funds are those conducting research, as such decisions need to be made based on evidence and experience.


  17.  The Research Assessment Exercise has been criticised for not encouraging universities to concentrate on their contribution to the development of public policy, and encouraged them instead to focus efforts on purely academic success. UUK was encouraged that the RAE2008, following the Roberts reforms, was designed to better recognise and reward user valued research. Moving forward with the development of the Research Excellence Framework we have an opportunity to enhance this. Universities UK has already been working with HEFCE to ensure that equal recognition of user valued research, which includes informing the development of policy, is built in to the assessment criteria. Most recently a high level workshop was held to address this question. The full outcomes can be found on HEFCE's website at http://www.hefce.ac.uk/research/ref/valued/.

January 2009

172   How academia and government can work together, 2008 Back

173   Engineering UK, 2008. Back

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