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

Memorandum 65

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 societies—Royal 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 might.

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 exploitation—this 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.

April 2009

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