Supplementary submission from the Institute
of Physics (IoP)
PUTTING SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING AT THE HEART
OF GOVERNMENT POLICYSUPPLEMENTARY EVIDENCE
What form a debate or consultation about the question
should take and who should lead it?
It is not clear from Lord Drayson's speech what
is meant by favouring those areas that have a clear competitive
advantage. Should we infer that advantage is used here in an industrial,
financial, or intellectual sense? One interpretation of the question
is that a drive towards exploiting the UK's competitive advantage
will be reflected in further movement towards directed/thematic
programmes (for which there has been a steadily increasing bias
in recent years) at the expense of responsive mode support for
curiosity-driven research. On that note, RCUK has just announced
three new areas for directed programmes.
If there is going to be an open debate then a wide-ranging
consultation exercise should be led independently by RCUK, involving
requests for written submissions and meetings/workshops with all
stakeholders to discuss the question in depth.
Critically, the premise of such a consultation will
depend on which quantitative measures are used to define research
endeavour that has "a clear competitive advantage".
Will it be: the international reviews of physics, chemistry, etc.;
PSA target metrics for the UK research base; the RAE2008 results
(but UoAs are not comparable); or the number of spin-offs and
Whether such a policy is desirable or necessary?
The research councils are already adopting policies
which imply that the emphasis is shifting to one of funding research
that shows potential, in advance of a research project being undertaken,
of economic and societal impact. This is evinced by the request
for two-page impact plans for grant applications and, in EPSRC's
case, a shrinkage of 15% in its responsive mode funding budget
to support its mission-based programmes.
It is important to understand that many of the areas
in which the UK has a `clear competitive advantage' are firmly
based in the area of independent curiosity-driven research, where
the creative talents of a large community can be harnessed. Such
areas frequently involve the activities of several competing research
groups, where a mixture of competition and collaboration leads
to rapid progress and puts the UK in a leading position.
Such curiosity-driven research has created completely
new technologies and industries. Evidence for this is the recent
report by the Russell Group
which showed that curiosity-driven research can have a far greater
social and economic impact than research carried out with a specific
commercial application in mind. It showed that the commercialisation
of curiosity-driven research generated average returns of £44
million for Russell Group universities; more than twice the average
returns from applied research. The report concluded that the government's
push to direct more funding at applied research, where economic
impact is predicted in advance, would have resulted in a loss
of £1.2 billion to the UK economy.
Both the recent RCUK Review of UK Physics and
the RAE2008 results showed that UK physics is in a good state
of health and that physics departments perform curiosity-driven
research of the highest international quality. Much of this curiosity-driven
research is funded through the responsive mode mechanism, where
the focus is exclusively on the quality of the research proposed.
The RAE2008 physics sub-panel's report, quite emphatically stated
"Many of the world-leading research outputs
observed in submissions originated from small responsive mode
grants. The sub-panel believes that continuing availability of
such grants is absolutely vital to encouraging and sustaining
groundbreaking research activity. Both national and European funding
agencies are concentrating heavily on large collaborative programmes
which, though worthwhile in themselves, if pursued to the exclusion
of smaller scale grants, may place the nation in a weak position
in the future....The physics and science community cannot know
where future developments will come from, and attempts to focus
funding too narrowly into priority research areas (or priority
departments) will limit rather than enhance the prospects of breakthroughs
at the highest level".
It is also important to realise that such research
has been the main driver in enhancing the international impact
of the UK academic sector so making it more attractive to foreign
students who bring in substantial income and often end up contributing
to increasing the skill level of the UK workforce.
One of the main problems the UK has to overcome
is that is simply not being innovative enough in commercialising
this scientific endeavour. More attention has to be given to the
translation of research into product, which is perhaps where the
debate should actually lie.
What the potential implications of such a policy
are for UK science and engineering, higher education, industry
and the economy as a whole?
The potential risk is that some stakeholders
may have to shift their focus from customary areas of expertise
into less familiar territory, such as directed programmes. The
International Review of UK Physics and Astronomy Research 2005
reported that such programmes can play an important role as a
response to new developments and/or as a means to enable collaboration
between two disciplines. However, one drawback is that there is
insufficient transparency in the selection of themes. Hence, such
programmes should be used with restraint and not at the expense
of responsive mode funding.
Were such a policy pursued, which research sectors
are most likely to benefit and which are most likely to lose?
Within science and engineering, it is likely to be
the engineering disciplines and the more applied sciences that
will benefit while the purer aspects will be reduced in emphasis.
For example, those areas of physics, which are long-term in their
planning and nature, and involve collaboration with many other
countries (eg the Large Hadron Collider at CERN), will not be
viewed as being able to deliver short-term economic impact.
Such a policy would lead to a reduction in research
grants that will have a major impact on the ability of physics
departments to attract and retain internationally leading research
staff. Furthermore, critical mass in these areas, once lost, would
be extremely difficult to recapture, as is clear from the shortage
of trained people in nuclear physics and engineering which threatens
the UK's plans for new nuclear build and decommissioning.
In conclusion, it is essential for the UK to
support a broad research base and not attempt to pick winners.
It is not clear whether focussing on select, narrow areas will
result in short-term economic gains, but it is obvious that in
the medium- to long-term, it will undermine the UK's ability to
retain the highly trained, inventive and innovative scientists
and engineers who will maintain and strengthen the UK's international
competitiveness. It is these people, particularly those that have
been attracted to the UK by a funding system and academic ethos
that allows them to pursue curiosity-driven research, who will
enable the UK to respond to new discoveries for which the economic
and societal impacts are manifold, but which are much more diffuse
and harder to quantify than for example, profits in a manufacturing
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