Setting priorities for publicly funded research - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Decisions about how best to allocate public funds to support research, especially in these times of economic stringency, are complex. They are not a matter of applying a simple matrix or formula. Instead, they require careful judgements about the deployment of limited funds between competing priorities so that the pursuit of knowledge and its translation into practical applications meet the needs of society as effectively and efficiently as possible. They involve a web of interacting funding mechanisms that include the research councils, higher education funding councils and Government departments.

At the centre of the debate about research funding priorities are the tensions between the differing objectives of research. For example, the research councils provide funding for the main areas of current scientific inquiry on the basis of the best scientific proposals made to them, whilst Government departments, such as health and defence, fund the research necessary for them to meet their departmental objectives. Meanwhile, there is an additional pull on resources as a result of major regional, national and international societal needs, including the aptly named "grand challenges" of climate and demographic change, and security of food, energy and water resources.

We welcome the fact that public expenditure on scientific research over the past decade has increased significantly (albeit from a lower baseline than that of comparable countries). Given the current economic context, however, it seemed particularly timely and appropriate for the Committee to focus on how the Government should set priorities for publicly funded research. We see the starting point as identifying the objectives of research. The objective of much research, particularly what is described as "curiosity driven research", is to understand more fully the world in which we live. More specifically, research can deliver a range of direct and indirect benefits. These include the creation, attraction and maintenance of scientific and technological skills; economic and social benefits; and providing evidence to underpin Government policy.

In this report, we make a number of recommendations intended to ensure that the Government are best placed to make research funding decisions. Our first recommendation is fundamental: that the Government should make a clear and unambiguous statement setting out their current research funding commitments. The remaining recommendations fall into two main categories: the need for an explicit Government overview of public expenditure on research (at both cross-departmental and departmental levels), and the need to develop improved mechanisms for setting priorities. They include requiring the Government Chief Scientific Adviser to publish annually figures on all public spending to support research, including specific aggregations; the establishment of mechanisms to identify major cross-cutting policy challenges and to co-ordinate and fund appropriate responses to such challenges; and a review of the contribution made by the Council for Science and Technology. Finally, we draw the attention of the House to a number of important issues which we have not been able to explore fully in the time available. These include: the balance between "responsive-mode" and "targeted" research; supporting private-sector research and innovation; concentration of research resources; and the role of "impact" as a criterion for allocating research funding. We anticipate that these are matters to which this Committee may wish to return in due course.

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