Submission from the University of Oxford
The University welcomes the opportunity to respond
to the Committee's call for evidence. Oxford is one of the country's
most prominent centres for world-leading research in science and
technology and has one of the best records for spinning out businesses.
It is therefore well placed to comment in response to Lord Drayson's
recent proposals on strategic science funding.
Debate should be globally informed,
in particular by models of how investment in science and technology
deliver impact elsewhere in the world and, importantly, should
take a long-term view.
A strong fundamental science base and
an applied science infrastructure are both key to the generation,
recognition and exploitation of the ideas that will ensure UK
successes in the long-term.
A business culture is required that
is not overly risk averse, in which risks can be taken and ideas
taken forward with reasonably low barriers.
A focus on particular areas based
on competitive advantage and perceived economic return is unlikely
to lead to sustained economic impact over the long term. Some
of the UK's areas of competitive advantage do not promise immediate
economic return. Those that do so are unlikely to be sustainable
in the long-term without underpinning core science and technology.
1. The debate should be informed by a global
perspective and a long-term view. In particular the debate should
be informed by the experience and practices of countries that
are successful in this arena, including the USA, Japan and Germany.
2. The debate should be led by professional societiesRoyal
Society, Royal Society of Chemistry Royal Academy of Engineering,
Institute of Physics etc. These bodies can provide a long-term
view from an international perspective on research, development
and impact. They have the trust and respect of the research community,
are more independent from government policy than the Research
Councils and would not have the same vested interests in terms
of future budgets and operations that individual Research Councils
Whether such a policy is desirable or necessary?
3. This can be questioned. The fundamental
character of research is evolutionary. That is, ideas are generated,
explored and categorised. Some turn out to be fruitful but many
don't. This means that a sufficiently broad research base is needed
both to generate the ideas and to recognise and exploit them.
In most cases these two functions are not coterminal and do not
arise from the same persons or groups. Therefore there is an inherent
danger in `focusing' that risks the functioning of the enterprise
as a whole.
4. However, it is certain that we could obtain
better returns on basic research by better exploitation of knowledge
generated. This is done much better elsewhere, in particular in
Germany. There the model is to have both a strong fundamental
science base (eg Max Planck Gesellschaft and Universities, funded
by DFG) and a strong, and large applied science infrastructure
(eg Fraunhofer and Leibniz Gesellschaften and Universities, funded
by BMBF). This feeds a high-tech industry that has a high-value
export capability. A different model underpins US success, but
similarly there is an infrastructure that can develop new ideas
easily and quickly and move them to market. In both cases it is
the multiplicity of opportunities that is key, not a fixed path.
Focussing research goes in the opposite direction; this again
can be questioned and is an untested model.
5. The pool of ideas that underpin innovation
has to draw widely on all disciplines. It is often the cross-fertilisation
of ideas from one area into another that leads to new insights
and progress. Therefore restricting the UK to a few areas of `excellence'
may ultimately be self-defeating.
6. Further, it is very difficult to pick winners
and losers at the early stages of idea development, so there is
a real danger of picking the wrong one(s). It is necessary to
have a broad base and many avenues for exploitationthis
leads to a stable and viable network. Additionally this means
that the culture of research should not be risk adverse. Ideas
need to be taken forward.
7. Obvious likely "winners" include
research areas such as biosciences. However it is not clear that
further investment in any area of strength will generate the best
proportional scientific or economic benefit. Ultimately the UK
is limited by its size. We do not have the ability to grow cutting
edge biosciences indefinitely because innovation is about people
and their creativity.
8. The UK can demonstrate a strong competitive
advantage in areas such as astrophysics, particle physics and
mathematics. These areas attract some of the brightest young minds.
However such fundamental subjects have economic impacts that are
not as immediate or as quantifiable as those in other areas and
therefore these subjects risk being losers in terms of focus.
This should not be allowed to happen.
9. Engineering and applied sciences are
not UK strengths, and therefore may not receive investment. Yet
it is hard to imagine that other areas on which the UK might focus,
such as health sciences will remain leading edge in the long term
without these underpinning core technology areas. The major themes
for RCUK cross-council research are so broad that they demand
excellence in all areas.
10. Our comments support the conclusion
that a focus on particular areas based on competitive advantage
and perceived economic return is not likely to lead to sustained
economic impact over the long term. The UK must be flexible in
order to maintain leading-edge, impactful science and engineering
that can remain internationally competitive in a sustainable way.
11. Approaches should include: the focus of new
funding in areas in which we are currently weak but that are ripe
for discovery and where the outcomes are likely to bring economic
benefits that link to some of our industries (eg nanoscience);
establishing and supporting strategic centres of excellence in
both basic and applied science and engineering (Max Planck/Fraunhofer
type institutes) around the hiring of top scientists and engineers
from abroad; engagement from UK businesses; and support of our
strengths in fundamental research and training.