5.50 The newness of the RDAs means that their
relationships with the universities are at a relatively early
stage of development. In common with a number of witnesses, HEFCE
stressed the need for RDAs to work even more closely with the
HE sector at a strategic level (p 283). Their ability to
do so is hampered by the "communication gulf between the
language of science and the language of economic development"
noted by Nottingham University (p 334).
5.51 Universities are well-established bodies,
used to dealing with multi-million pound research contracts with
both public bodies and the private sector. They have extensive
networks and support organisations that manage their research
and other contracts. It is to be hoped that this level of professionalism
can be carried across into dealings with the RDAs, whose decision-making
processes are seen by a number of witnesses as unnecessarily bureaucratic.
5.52 For example, the University of Newcastle
upon Tyne noted:
"a distance between discussion with officers
in the RDA and their project appraisal systems which introduces
a high degree of challenge at the project level. Further, checks
and balances are introduced through referral of major decisions
to the DTI. This all adds up to a cumbersome and lengthy decision-making
process compared with the research councils." (p 332)
As neatly summarised by Dr Douglas Robertson, RDAs
should "stop being contracting agencies and start being collaborating
partners" (Q 129).
5.53 To improve the strategic and operational
links between RDAs and the University sector, we therefore recommend
that each RDA should work with its regional university association
to devise and put in place arrangements for closer strategic working
that also minimise the bureaucracy of contracting arrangements.
5.54 As noted in paragraph 4.43, RDAs are encouraged
to promote economic development through cluster policies. It is
generally recognised that, proximity of businesses in the same
general field (whether or not they are high-tech) can yield real
benefits of mutual support. This is the rationale behind the science
and technology parks that are to be found in many parts of the
country, often supported or promoted by the RDA.
5.55 It is important that all clusters should
derive the maximum benefit from the regional SET base, particularly
but not exclusively that which is contained within the public
sector. The public sector research base represents a huge knowledge
and resource base in SET. Some of that science relates to business
sectors or to key technologies for growth. Much of the specialist
work that goes on in a region's universities is likely to relate
to the RDA's key sectors. It is equally likely to be relevant
outside the region, so a region's businesses may also need to
look more widely for SET expertise.
5.56 As noted in paragraph 5.17, a number of
RDAs have mapped the strengths of the SET base in relation to
their clusters. There does not, however, appear to have been any
systematic mapping of the national SET base in relation to the
key business sectors and clusters. This would be a valuable resource
for both RDAs and businesses, and would also help strengthen the
networking between the national SET base and the regions.
5.57 We therefore recommend that RDAs should
collaborate with their regional university associations to map
the SET strengths of the universities in relation to key clusters,
aggregating the results into a national resource by making them
available on the web-enabled intelligence service recommended
in paragraph 4.51. A useful starting point for this would seem
to be the Scottish Research Information Service (SRIS) which,
as noted by UUK, provides a central point for businesses to find
out about Scottish HEIs' research expertise and opportunities