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

Memorandum 70

Submission from the Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures (SURF), University of Salford


    "Has the time come for the UK—as part of a clear economic strategy—to make choices about the balance of investment in science and innovation to favour those areas in which the UK has clear competitive advantage?"


    —  Developing a clear economic strategy in this area is problematic in the absence of systematic understanding about how knowledge exchange in different disciplines and sectors works. —  Choices about investments in science and innovation are made on sets of assumptions which include the relationship between excellence and relevance and the value attached to different forms of knowledge.

    —  There is a conflation between the vision of world class excellent science and particular economic outcomes, without any rigorous understanding of how expected benefits can be realised from different areas of knowledge—and the implications for major knowledge producers, among them universities.

    —  There are dangers in a short-term reaction to a global economic crisis without examining the underlying assumptions and deficits of policy.

    —  In particular, we are concerned that choices made as a result of sub-optimal policy-making processes will result in further concentration of resources and undermine the structural, institutional, disciplinary, spatial and industrial integrity of the research base.

    —  Careful consideration needs to be given to how opportunities are structured within a renewed policy of targeting to ensure benefits for the broadest base of the UK as possible.

    —  This might include, for instance, de-linking the thematic concentration of resource from a geographical or institutional concentration through novel networked, distributed or satellite forms of organisation and management. Incentives are needed not only to attract big private sector R&D actors, but to embed and share the benefits more widely across the industrial base.


  1.1  The Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures is a research centre at the University of Salford under the 6* BuHU Research Institute.[213]

1.2  This submission builds upon SURF's recent work on European multi-level science and innovation policy; the roles of universities in the knowledge economy and effective knowledge exchange between the research base and user communities.[214]


2.1  Has the time come?

  Recent policy pronouncements state that it is the context of the global economic downturn which has created the impetus for a debate on whether science and innovation policy should be more targeted to favour areas of "competitive advantage".

What is new is the idea that `relevance' to economic competitive outcomes should be given greater priority in determining the broad areas to which funding should be allocated.

"Relevance" is seen as critical if science and innovation are to deliver on the expectation that they are stepping stones out of recession and springboards for success in the economic upturn.

2.2  As part of a clear economic strategy...?

  How is this to be realised? Caution should be exercised in deploying grand assumptions concerning the power of science and innovation.

Our work has consistently highlighted a "missing middle" in knowledge exchange between research and user communities. We know "what" is required but an understanding of "how" the expected benefits of science and technology, across disciplines, can most effectively be harnessed and translated into economic, social and environmental gain, is not so developed.[215]

  The "missing middle" relates to how policy levers, incentives and expectations of science and innovation fail to match up with the capacity to deliver. A linear, simplistic understanding of the relationship between research and practice continues to dominate.

2.3  To make choices about the balance of investment in science and innovation...

  We have a policy of targeting. Choices have always been made about the balance of investment in science and innovation. Yet the criteria for such choices are not always clear, whether economic or scientific.[216]

Research on the formulation of policy processes at the Centre has highlighted the gap between the identification of new frameworks for action and the implementation of frameworks in action.[217]

  Criteria for a further concentration of resources must be clear, defensible and coherent, from consultation through to implementation.

  "Choices" can only be as good as the knowledge they are based upon. Policy rhetoric tends to focus on a disembedded understanding of excellence, which conflates world-class, global excellence with particular kinds of scientific and largely technological knowledge.

  Government reinforces a narrow view of scientific excellence that equates national actions with excellence and regional actions with relevance.

  There is a dichotomy between excellence and relevance that needs to be overcome. New ways of building "excellent relevance" and "relevant excellence" for the UK's competitive knowledge base is needed through what we have termed "active intermediaries".

2.4  To favour those areas in which the UK has clear competitive advantage?

  The dominance of the disembedded, global, world-class, `science', excellence view of the world has the effect of devaluing other forms of knowledge, particularly, for instance, in the social sciences, arts or humanities, as well as physical sciences in other institutions and places.

Our work clearly highlights the diverse knowledge needs of a wide range of industries. Economic benefit is as much about sharing and integrating existing knowledge as producing that which is new. Open innovation has the potential for supply-chain benefits, but the issue of ownership and embeddedness of footloose multi-national R&D remains problematic.

  We see an increasing stratification in the higher education sector between research-facing and business-facing universities, global players and locally-relevant actors, or between teaching and research institutions. This detracts from more developed understandings

  There is an existing concentration of resources that favours centres of expertise across England. Further concentration could result in regions, cities and their universities increasingly vying for the same pots of money and thematic specialisms leading to duplication and few incentives for collaboration.

  This could result in fragmentation and an increasing differentiation between the research "haves" and "have nots" in disciplinary, industrial, institutional and spatial terms.

  There are not only issues of equity at stake, but inherent dangers in overconcentration, short-termism and a "strangling" of more bottom-up areas of research opportunity.

2.5  A Way Forward?

  To address these issues require careful consideration through the following:

    —  a greater understanding of the contribution of different knowledges to economic, social and environmental challenges;

    —  further analysis on how mechanisms for knowledge exchange between the research base, industry and the public sector differ across disciplines and sectors;

    —  a more sophisticated awareness of the potential win-wins between national and regional involvement in science policy to bring excellence and relevance together; and

    —  the potential for more distributed, networked and open forms of research and innovation to ensure both excellence, relevance and address issues of institutional, spatial and industrial concentration.

April 2009

213   For further information, see http://www.surf.salford.ac.ukBack

214   This includes in excess of 300 interviews over the past five years with science and innovation stakeholders within European, national and sub-national tiers of governance, industry and higher education. Back

215   Perry, B and May, T (2006) Excellence, relevance and the university: the "missing middle" in socio-economic engagement. Journal of Higher Education in Africa, Vol 4, No 3, pp 69-92. Back

216   For instance, in relation to the location of the DIAMOND synchrotron at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, our research highlighted opaque policy processes and multiple lines of Government accountability. ESRC Grant, "Making Science History? The Regionalisation of Science Policy.", Award Number L144250004. Back

217   Marvin, S and May, T (2003) City Futures: Views from the Centre. City. 7:2, 211-223. Back

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