Submission from the John Innes Centre,
the Institute of Food Research and the Sainsbury Laboratory
PUTTING SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING AT THE HEART
OF GOVERNMENT POLICY
CALL FOR SUPPLEMENTARY EVIDENCE ON STRATEGIC SCIENCE
BBSRC INSTITUTES, THE
Strategic science fundingwhat form should
a debate or consultation about the question take and who should
The Institutes believe that there should be
a broad debate and a formal consultation. We suggest this could
be led by a number of organisations jointly, including your Committee
and the Royal Society in addition to Government representatives
from DIUS and BERR and industry-organisations such as the CBI.
Major steps should be taken to involve harder-to-reach
audiences outside the mainstream academic and parliamentary community
but whose views will be valuable in establishing such a fundamental
policy. The views of `young science' should be actively encouraged.
It would be an interesting initiative to introduce modern e-communication
mechanisms such as webcasting to add an additional dimension and
attract more input from scientists at the bench who would not
otherwise concern themselves with such discussions, but whose
commitment is key to the UK's future competitiveness.
Is such a policy is desirable or necessary?
We believe that science and engineering should be
at heart of Government policy. The question is whether Government
should put policy at the heart of science and engineering ie what
is the Government drivereconomic impact or excellence?
Although it is recognised that economic and social
impacts are of increasing importance, these benefits rarely appear
rapidly, and often the rewards are serendipitous rather than strategically
planned. Furthermore, work that appears to have no economic impact
today, may turn out to be of crucial significance during changed
circumstances in the future. Since nobody (perhaps especially
not industry, which is usually preoccupied with addressing short
term problems) has a monopoly of wisdom on which S&T will
be most useful in the future, it would be unwise to be too prescriptive
on the basis of current consensus about needs. In the current
financial climate there may be a political driver to show value
for money from research, but driving research too strongly towards
impact and direct delivery risks undermining the quality of the
science base that currently feeds technological development. Additionally,
the benefits of science in one sector may be realised in quite
What is important is to fund the best fundamental
research and the best applied research with suitable bridging
mechanisms to facilitate translation of fundamental science into
Currently, Research Council funding is provided
for fundamental research but there are fewer mechanisms for translation.
The translation mechanisms in place often require early stage
funding/support from industry. Not all UK industries are able
to support at early stages due to market pressure and low marginsfor
example compare the pharmaceutical industry with the food industry.
What are the potential implications of such a
policy for UK science and engineering, higher education, industry
and the economy as a whole?
If this policy is implemented, some international
quality, basic science might not be funded. Scientists will feel
under pressure to deliver economic impact over an unrealistically
short timescales, as will funding providers. Some industries will
not have a national scientific base to build on and will look
overseas which could lead to lost intellectual property or funding
The definitions of areas of excellence are rather
broad and lack detail, and will certainly be controversial. Concentration
on scientific excellence ignores national strategic importance,
for example the need to support UK industries on issues such as
Research is a continuum leading from basic,
to strategic, to applied science and application. The Institutes
believe that it is simplistic to concentrate on one part of the
continuum whilst neglecting another. Not only will over-concentration
on application and short-term impact risk cutting off the supply
of new ideas coming along the science-conveyor, but undue concentration
on fundamental science may also lead to ideas that do not get
translated into processes or products (or taken up outside the
Were such a policy pursued, which research sectors
are most likely to benefit and which are most likely to lose?
Due to its financial/political weight, the pharma
sector might win out at expense of other key areas. Areas with
little or no direct, short-term economic impact could struggle
eg longer term studies in human health where investment costs
are high and `payback time' is often long.
The danger is that the areas which lose out will
be determined by industry or politicians rather than based on
objective, scientific criteria. The UK's contribution to publication
rates in top journals will fall (either due to poorer basic science
or restriction on publication for commercial reasons), and the
overall international standing of UK science will diminish.