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

Setting priorities for publicly funded research

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 internationally—including 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 successfully.

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 (Chapter 5).


6.  The terminology used to distinguish between different types of research is the subject of much debate,[1] 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 these categories.


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 our work.

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

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