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

Memorandum 62

Submission from the John Innes Centre, the Institute of Food Research and the Sainsbury Laboratory




Strategic science funding—what form should a debate or consultation about the question take and who should lead it?

  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 driver—economic 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 another sector.

  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 application.

  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 margins—for 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 moving abroad.

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 food security.

  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 UK).

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.

April 2009

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