Supplementary submission from the Campaign
for Science and Engineering (CaSE)
1. The Campaign for Science & Engineering
(CaSE) welcomes the Committee's call for supplementary evidence
on the government's proposed agenda to focus the UK's research
2. Since the idea was first floated by Lord
Drayson at the Committee's evidence session with him it has undergone
various iterations. CaSE has followed ministerial speeches about
or referring to the research "focus" agenda. Although
having an open debate about policy is a laudable aim, the process
by which this debate has been enacted has left much to be desired.
3. The current state of the debate is unclear.
Although "focus" has been referred to in a number of
speeches. Speeches by Lord Drayson and John Denham MP contained
references to focusing funding on certain areas at the expense
of others. Although the Prime Minister mentioned focus, he said
that investment in science would rise across the board. Due to
a lack of clarity about what is at stake this debate has consisted
of speculation about potential impacts rather than substantive
discussions about how to develop science and engineering during
the economic downturn.
4. If the government is going to pursue
this debate any further it needs to draft a consultation paper
setting out proposals and their potential implications. The set
of questions needs to be wider than the single proposal of focusing
research effort. The science budget has already been allocated
until 2010/2011, so there is time for a consultation process on
the government's science policy prior to the next comprehensive
5. The origins of this debate appear to
stem from discussions about creating a new industrial policy,
which was launched on 20 April 2009 with the title New Industry,
New Jobs. The policy statement made a number of proposals
on increasing the economic impact of the research base through
grant assessment, the Research Excellence Framework and the Technology
Strategy Board. There needs to be policy debates about developing
those proposals. However, there was no mention of re-focusing
research funding on priority areas.
6. The general thrust of the industrial policy
is to join up government activities, including procurement and
regulation, to support particular sectors so that they are better
supported. One of the key initiatives was the creation of the
Government Office of Life Sciences, intended to bring various
departments together to create greater coherence between policies
affecting the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector. If this
proves to be a successful method to support priority technology
areas then it should be expanded to other sectors. Government
department R&D should be included within discussions about
how to promote innovation within relevant sectors.
7. There are a number of serious flaws in
thinking that the UK or certain sectors would benefit from narrowing
the focus of the research base, because:
It is hard to predict where major
advances in certain sectors are going to come from as they are
not always in the disciplines that would be expected.
New discoveries and innovations often
occur at borders between subject disciplines and thus depend on
a breadth across disciplines rather than focusing on already established
and recognised areas.
Once resources are drawn down in
an area it is difficult to build them back up again to respond
to emerging challenges or technological opportunities.
Students pursue science, technology,
engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects due to an excitement
for a particular field. If particular areas are identified as
not being nationally important by government it would undermine
their drive to increase students taking STEM subjects.
8. Although science and engineering research
is vital to many areas of economic activity, it also has a broader
impact on society through improving environmental protection,
cultural advancement, policy advice and human well-being. Even
during a recession it is important that policymakers remember
that "economic impact" is meant to encompass a wide
set of issues.
9. Through the 10 Year Framework on Science
and Innovation Investment Framework the government has provided
policy clarity and continuity for science and engineering. The
government should build upon this record and not undermine it
by creating instability in research funding by having a debate
about priority areas. It could risk losing talented researchers
and mobile corporate R&D to other countries who are making
considerable investments in R&D through the economic downturn.
10. The government currently focuses the
UK's research effort through allocating different funding levels
to the research councils. It also adopted new measures in the
last science budget allocation to focus research in certain areas
through cross-council research programmes and requiring research
councils to fund projects through the Technology Strategy Board
and Energy Technologies Institute. These new initiatives should
be reviewed before further resources are re-allocated to them.
11. To better inform debates about the allocation
of research funding, there should be independent "health"
checks of disciplines and the publication of statistical data
relating to the portfolio of research investments. There should
also be greater consultation and transparency regarding the science
12. The breadth and strength of the UK's
research base is one of the nation's greatest assets. It provides
the space for developing innovative technologies and the ability
to understand and respond to new challenges. The government is
looking to support initiatives to re-balance the economy, because
it is all too apparent that reliance on a few sectors makes a
system more vulnerable. The government should learn this lesson
and strengthen the research base across the board.