Setting priorities for publicly funded
CHAPTER 1: introduction
1. Decisions about how best to allocate public
funds to support research, especially in these times of economic
stringency, are complex. 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. Decisions about the use of public funds to support
research are more complicated than the classical division between
"basic" and "applied" research implies. They
involve a web of interacting funding mechanisms, which include
the research councils, higher education funding councils and Government
departments (see Appendix 5).
2. If the institutional arrangements for funding
research are complex, so too is the diversity of demands on those
funds. Central to the debate about research funding priorities
are the differing tensions resulting from those demands. For example,
research councils provide funding for the main areas of current
scientific inquiry on the basis of the best scientific proposals
made to them, as well as maintaining a strategic overview of developments
within science and technology and their potential applications
for the benefit of society. In contrast, Government departments
such as health and defence fund research necessary to achieve
their departmental objectives and discharge their departmental
responsibilities. An additional pull on resources results from
the major needs of society identified regionally, nationally and
internationallyincluding the aptly named "grand challenges"
of climate change, energy security, demographic change and security
of food and water resources. Such "grand challenges"
require funding bodies to work together if they are to be tackled
3. Public funding for research has increased
in cash terms over the last decade, and this has helped to make
the United Kingdom's research base a world leader in many respects.
This is welcome. But it does not obviate the need to ensure that
funds are being spent well, in terms of value for money and in
a way that best reflects societal needs. The current economic
climate makes this all the more important.
4. In this short report, we consider whether
current mechanisms to support research are sufficiently robust
to ensure that decisions about research funding are, as far as
possible, based on the best available advice.
Structure of the report
5. We begin with a description of the context
in which public funding decisions are made, referring in particular
to the economic climate (Chapter 2). We go on to consider the
substantive issues of this report relating to improving mechanisms
for setting priorities for publicly funded research (Chapter 3).
We then flag up a number of issues that we have not had an opportunity
to explore fully but that would warrant further investigation
in the future (Chapter 4). Finally, we list our recommendations
6. The terminology used to distinguish between
different types of research is the subject of much debate,
including among our witnesses (see pp 5, 419, 449, 505; QQ 2,
5, 42, 285, 286, 288, 289, 456). Identifying tidy categories for
research is difficult, but necessary for the purposes of analysis.
In this report, we use the term that is most appropriate in the
particular context in which it appears. In particular, we use
"responsive-mode" research to mean research whose topic
has been determined primarily by the researcher, and "targeted"
research to mean research whose objective has been determined
primarily by the funding agency. We also use the terms "basic"
or "curiosity driven" research to mean research intended
primarily to enhance understanding, and "applied" research
to mean research intended to develop existing understanding for
application. We emphasise, however, that such necessary distinctions
are not clear cut, and that there is much overlap within and between
7. The membership and interests of the Committee
are set out in Appendix 1, and those who submitted written and
oral evidence are listed in Appendix 2. The call for evidence
with which we launched our inquiry is reprinted in Appendix 3.
On 14 October 2009, we held a seminar to which academics, representatives
from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)
and others contributed. A list of those who gave presentations
is set out in Appendix 4. We thank all those who assisted us in
8. Finally, we are grateful to our Specialist
Adviser, Professor Ben Martin of the SPRU (Science and Technology Policy Research) at the University of Sussex for his expertise and
guidance during this inquiry. We stress, however, that the conclusions
we draw and the recommendations we make are ours alone.
1 For example, see A Vision for UK Research,
Council for Science and Technology, March 2010, p 10. Back