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


Memorandum 68

Supplementary submission from Universities UK (UUK)

"PUTTING SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING AT THE HEART OF GOVERNMENT POLICY"

  Universities UK is the major representative body for the higher education sector. It has 133 members who are the executive heads of the universities in the UK, and works closely with policy makers and key stakeholders to advance the interests of universities and higher education.

SUMMARY

  1.  Outlined below is our response to the policy signals sent by Government recently regarding strategic investment in science and innovation. Universities UK believes that UK university-based research is already geared to be responsive to economic changes and needs, and would urge recognition of existing efforts to foster high-impact research. The current balance of the existing dual support funding arrangement is vital to maintaining such an effective research base.

DEBATE/CONSULTATION ON INVESTMENT IN SCIENCE AND INNOVATION

  2.  In overseeing any debate or consultation, or in the formulation of final policy, we would hope that Government would not abandon its hitherto continued adherence to the Haldane Principle that research decisions should be made by researchers.

3.  Universities UK would also hope that any consultation would involve universities from across the sector, not only those specialising in science and engineering. Lord Drayson reassured our members at the end of the February that when he talked of "science" he meant it in the European sense, that is, "knowledge" in all its forms. For good reason it has often been pointed out that a possible investment priority such as responses to climate change is an area on which research developments in the arts, humanities and social sciences, as well as sciences, must all be brought to bear.

THE NECESSITY AND DESIRABILITY OF SUCH A POLICY

  4.  Universities UK maintains that the existing funding framework is appropriate for a responsive and successful research base, and we would be wary of any substantial re-engineering intended to cater for immediate economic concerns.

5.  We believe that the notable success of UK university-based research is due to its funding through the dual support system, which allows both direction at the broad level and responsiveness in the research base. The two main public sources of funding in dual support- the block grants to universities and the project-based research supported by the research councils—are different in nature, but equal in importance.

  6.  The block grant made to universities by the funding councils ensures a fertile and financially sustainable research base. Much effort has been made in recent years to rebalance the dual support funding to allow for this financial sustainability which is essential for a thriving research base, and we do not want this good work to be undone.

  7.  The block grants also do more than ensure financial sustainability: they provide institutions with the flex and ability to respond to new demands and challenges, allowing risky or more innovative research to be supported when it might otherwise slip through the net. Our 2006 publication, Eureka, conveyed how many unexpected but world-changing innovations and ideas have emerged from being given time to evolve in supportive research cultures. We simply cannot afford to miss these opportunities. All research areas rely heavily on this funding. The arts and humanities, which have great economic relevance through the creative industries, for example, is one such area.

  8.  It must also be remembered that, as well as being unpredictable, the impact of research can have long lead times—far beyond immediate economic concerns. A recent report from the Wellcome Trust, MRC and Academy of Medical Sciences shows that the time lag between research expenditure and eventual health benefits is around 17 years.

  9.  With regard to the funding of project-based research by the Research Councils, work is already underway by the Research Councils and HEFCE to help demonstrate and encourage the impact of research investment: Research Councils are building this into their grant process and HEFCE is considering how impact can be recognised within the REF framework. Universities UK is currently working with the Research Councils to explore how this direction is being pursued in other ways, for example, through academic promotion criteria.

  10.  We also support the cross-Research Council priority themes that seek to establish multi-disciplinary approaches that can address major societal challenges. These themes match with many of the key priority areas the Government have identified. Combined with the efforts to maximise impact of research funded by the Research Councils (outlined in the previous paragraph), this work has huge economic potential and we would welcome enhanced support for it. (Any enhanced support for project-based research however must always be matched by growth in the block grant for universities, for reasons outlined above).

POTENTIAL IMPLICATIONS FOR HIGHER EDUCATION

  11.  Again, Universities UK would be very wary of any attempt to skew the current balance in the dual support funding system. Attempts to focus research efforts any further would risk closing off the broad but vital contribution that a range of disciplines could make to key priorities such as climate change research, as already noted.

SECTORS THAT WOULD BENEFIT AND THOSE THAT WOULD LOSE OUT THROUGH SUCH A POLICY

  12.  Universities UK does not believe that Government should be "picking winners", not least because, where university-based research is concerned, this is far from an exact science. Such a government-led policy might also risk undermining cross-disciplinary collaboration, which is already recognised (by Research-Council allocations) as a common and important feature of some high-impact research in key priority areas such as climate change.

13.  Again, we would urge policy-makers to recognise the success of the UK's research base, and to understand that its dynamism and responsiveness is due in no small part to the balanced dual support system that currently exists.

April 2009






 
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