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

Memorandum 58

Supplementary submission from the British Academy




  1.  The British Academy, the UK's national academy for the humanities and social sciences, is pleased to respond to the Committee's call for supplementary evidence on the question of strategic science funding, and in particular we address Lord Drayson's question "whether the time has come for the UK—as part of a clear economic strategy—to make choices about the balance of investment in science and innovation to favour those areas in which the UK has clear competitive advantage"..


  2.   The British Academy makes the following key points:

All disciplines together

To deal with the challenges and to seize the opportunities posed by the economic downturn, it is essential that the UK is able to exploit the full range of expertise in its world-class research base. Scientific and technological advances can be used effectively only if political, social and cultural understanding is deployed in ways that ensure that all disciplines are able to work together.

National and thematic provision only where effective

Within the social as in the natural sciences, there is sometimes a need for large-scale infrastructural facilities, which have to be provided on a national basis. For example, those studying family formation and dissolution need access to good longitudinal databases. These facilities must be planned and maintained to support a wider range of research.

Managing research

While it can be useful for Government (in consultation with the research community) to identify certain broad overarching themes, it cannot micromanage research effectively.

Impact has to be judged in a broad sense and reasonable timeframe

Given the wide range of direct and indirect (social, cultural, economic and policy as well as technological and industrial) benefits flowing from the research base, it would be unwise to focus on the short term economic impact of research at the expense of other important and longer term impacts, including quality of life.

It is important to support basic as well as applied research

Applied research relies on the foundations that have been developed by basic research. Both basic and applied research have to be funded properly and on the basis of excellence, if the UK research base is to prosper. The worst of all possible worlds is to have poor research with high impact.

It is important to mobilise direct government research spend

Government departments (civil and defence) themselves control large research and development budgets. In 2005-06, their budgets, at £4,484 million, made up just under half of the Government's total spend on science and research, and almost matched the combined budgets of £4,800 million of the funding and research councils[191] The current debate on strategic science funding should be extended to include government commissioned research as well, so that tax-based support for research and development can be seen in its entirety.


  3.   The interplay between subjects. The UK will not be able to exploit its scientific advances without intelligent legislation, regulation, accounting and audit standards, and commitment to sustainable business models, which all rely heavily on the insights of the humanities and social science (HSS) research base. For example, consider HSS research on:

    —  effective and ineffective legislation and policy-making;

    —  effective and ineffective management and team working structures and practices in industry and safety critical services;

    —  ethical, social, legal conditions for effective research and innovation;

    —  revised accountability frameworks;

    —  more workable regulation of scientific work;

    —  behaviour change (which draws on expertise from economics, the sociology of consumer behaviour and psychology); and

    —  shaping public engagement with research and innovation.

  4.  Fostering the UK's competitive advantage. We agree that the UK must improve its exploitation of the full commercial value from research that has potential for economic impact, but it also needs to recognise that competitive advantage is rarely based on technological excellence alone. Factors such as effective regulation and financial architecture, design, branding and customer service (all rooted in various parts of research in the humanities and social sciences) are also essential in delivering and sustaining a competitive lead. The sources of competitive advantage, moreover, cannot be reduced to a formula or be readily predicted in advance.

  5.  If we are to grasp how deeply innovation matters for the UK's long-term economic well-being, it must be defined broadly, in line with last year's Government White Paper, Innovation Nation. Innovation Nation acknowledged that innovation is based not just on scientific and technological advances and took a holistic view of innovation. It highlighted ways in which the UK excelled at "hidden innovation", especially in its leading services sectors and creative industries (which draw heavily on HSS expertise). The UK cultural sector is considered by the OECD to be relatively more important (at just under 6% of GDP) than its equivalent sectors in the US, Canada, France and Australia. UNESCO estimates indicate that the UK is the world's biggest exporter of "cultural goods", surpassing even the US, and Lord Carter, the Government's Communications Minister, recently predicted that: "In five years' time, the creative industries [in the UK] could be as powerful as the financial services industry has been for the last 10 or 15 years".

  6.  HSS knowledge contributes to the creative industries in a number of ways, including:

    —  Content. Examples here include: the success of the UK computer games industry, driven as much by skills and knowledge from the arts and humanities as from computer science; the contribution of HSS research to academic publishing with a global market; and the way in which the UK's tourist industry—which employs just under 8% of the total work force and is the sixth largest industry in Britain—draws upon expertise in HSS.

    —  The intellectual property framework that is of fundamental importance not only to the creative industries but also facilitates (if the framework is designed appropriately) the effective exploitation of technological innovations.

    —  Planning, marketing and dissemination.

  7.  The UK will have to compete by developing new products and services, discovering new ways of doing business, and encouraging innovation in its public sector and public services. To succeed the UK will need to draw more effectively on the full range of research from the natural sciences, engineering, and the humanities and social sciences.

  8.  Picking "winners". Research seeks to challenge current thinking and practices and develop new approaches. Its outcomes cannot be predicted in advance, and it may be many years before the full impact of research can be properly realised. As an earlier Academy report said: "how can we decide what is useful knowledge and what is not. We fear that those who try to second guess what is `useful', and what is less useful, knowledge may make the wrong decisions. Predicting which areas will prove to be the most important and most valued in the future is in its nature difficult, perhaps impossible". In the Academy's opinion, it is unwise to support a few subject areas at the expense of others, since this will narrow the options available to the UK, making it harder for the UK to respond to unexpected problems and developments in the future. As the outcomes of original research can never be anticipated in advance, any efforts to plan research will fail and risk distorting research priorities. We therefore welcome the Prime Minister's emphasis in his recent Romanes Lecture on the need for a broad base in science and research.

  9.  The Government is in a position to set (in consultation with the research community) very broad, overarching strategic themes for research. But it cannot and should not seek to micromanage the research endeavour.

  10.  If the Government wants to prioritise the science spend, it can already do so in terms of the funding that Government Departments control directly. The research and development budgets of Government Departments are considerable. The debate should therefore be broadened in scope to consider these budgets as well, so that the Government can consider research policy as a whole.

  11.  There must also be an appropriate balance between short and long term impacts, to enable the UK to respond both to current challenges as well as ones that it will face in the future. It would be unwise to focus on short term economic impacts of research at the expense of other important and longer term impacts. A policy on these lines will ultimately be ineffective and will run counter to the Government's objective that the UK should position itself so that it can fully exploit current and future opportunities.

  12.  The importance of basic research. A number of studies have shown that "blue skies" research can have far-reaching, and unexpected impacts, including unexpected business applications. Applied research has to build on the foundations that have been laid by basic research. Hence both have to be funded properly, if the UK research base is to prosper.

  13.  The balance between strategic and responsive research funding. It is essential that there should be an appropriate balance between strategic and responsive research funding. Some of the most innovative and creative research is funded through response mode.

  14.  Attracting and retaining the best people. The UK must also ensure that it can develop, support and retain the talent that is needed to take forward research innovations. The market for good researchers is global and highly competitive, so the UK needs to make sure that it can attract and retain the best people from the start of their research careers, as well as recruit some of the most talented mid-career researchers and groups. Once research expertise is lost, it is very hard to rebuild.

April 2009

191   "Including the UK contribution of £365 million to the EU R&D budget, the grand total of all Government expenditure on SET in 2005-06 was £9,649 million. The Science and Engineering Base (Research Councils and Higher Education Institutions) accounted for 50% of total SET expenditure, with 20% by civil departments, 26% by defence, and 4% by the UK's contribution to EU R&D". Extract from SET Statistics: Net Government Expenditure on departments in cash terms. Back

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