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

CHAPTER 3: improving the mechanisms for setting research priorities

19.  Given the current economic context, our focus is on how the Government should set priorities for publicly funded research, ensuring that it represents value for money and is of the highest calibre. This will involve, first, recognising and agreeing the objectives of research and, secondly, setting budgets in the light of identified objectives.

Research objectives

20.  The objective of much research, particularly what is described as "curiosity driven research", is to understand more fully the nature and processes of the world in which we live—from atomic substructure to galactic change—and to measure, and where necessary to change, the impact of these processes on the individual and on society (p 1).

21.  More specifically, research can bring about a series of direct and indirect benefits, which include:

  • the creation, attraction and maintenance of scientific and technological skills (pp 1, 399, 359, 475, QQ 465, 456);
  • economic benefit (through harnessing technology, promoting business development and attracting investment into the UK) (p 1);
  • social benefit (such as improving health and wellbeing) (pp 1, 359, 475, 506); and
  • providing evidence to inform and direct Government policy (pp 1, 43, 70, 371, 383, 446).

22.  The Government employ several mechanisms to enable the research base to meet research objectives (see Appendix 5). Although they are interdependent, each has different aims and purposes (p 2). Each may use a different primary criterion: for example, excellence is the primary criterion used by the research councils, to ensure that the highest quality research is funded, whereas Government departments' policy objectives determine their priorities in meeting specific policy needs. The plurality and diversity that this system provides is considered to be valuable as it allows multiple opportunities for the best research to be funded (p 204, QQ 333, 336, 464).

Reaping the benefits of research through Government policy

23.  The Government need to make informed policy decisions on the basis of the best available advice, which requires the best possible structures to ensure that advice to Ministers is independent and of the highest calibre.

24.  Understanding how this need can be better met is the purpose of this report. We make a number of specific recommendations. They fall into two main categories:

  • the need for an explicit Government overview of public expenditure on research—at both cross-departmental and departmental levels;
  • the need to develop improved mechanisms for setting priorities.

We consider each in turn.

Overview of Government expenditure on research and development

25.  All Government departments' research and development spending should be driven by the need to support policy objectives. It is likely that, in a number of departments, that expenditure, like those objectives, will vary from year to year (Q 100). Only the Department of Health's research and development spending is ring fenced (p 23).

26.  There is often a tension between the short-term focus of a Government, and especially of a particular Minister, and the long-term nature of much research. That tension is increased when budgets are under pressure, and can make departmental research and development budgets particularly vulnerable at a time of reductions in expenditure (QQ 278, 282, 79, 563, 327, 102, 103, 104).

27.  According to the evidence we received, within the Government there is no overview of total public spending on research and development across key policy sectors, or discussion of national research priorities. Nick Dusic, Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, for example, told us that although the Treasury decided research allocations to the various funding mechanisms, it had no overview of all public spending to support research—that is, not only Government departments but the research councils and other mechanisms (Q 327). Lord Drayson said that "no individual" is "the locus for an overview of all of the lines of [research] investment" (Q 560). Professor Beddington confirmed that data were collected at departmental level and that they did not include the calculation of figures for specific subject areas across all Government spending (p 314).

28.  Professor Andrew Stirling, Research Director at SPRU, University of Sussex, also made the point that in the UK, in contrast to the United States, for example, "aggregated information" on how much is spent on particular aspects of research and development within key sectors was not readily available; as a result, it was difficult to identify the reasons why resources were distributed as they were (QQ 441, 442, 443). He suggested that the Government Office for Science, which provides administrative support to the GCSA, should publish on a regular basis detailed figures aggregated across all public research investment in key sectors of the economy such as energy, food, transport, security and public health (p 287). We agree. Such aggregation would require Government departments and the other organisations involved to agree definitions for the categories to be reported. Aggregated information on public research spending is important not only for reasons of accountability. Much research in key policy sectors is essential to maintain national capacity. If that capacity is lost or jeopardised because a particular aspect is not given sufficient priority, and is therefore subject to a reduction in funding, Government policy may suffer.

29.  We recommend that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser should

  • publish annually figures on all public spending to support research, including aggregated figures for categories the definitions of which have been agreed among Government departments and with relevant organisations; and
  • make appropriate recommendations to the Prime Minister.

We further recommend that the Government Office for Science should have the appropriate resources to support that task.

Advice and consultation

30.  The Government have access to several sources of science advice, both within the Government (internally) and from independent advisers (externally). Internal science advice is provided to Ministers by, among others, the GCSA and departmental CSAs.[16] Most Government departments—with the exception of the Treasury—have a CSA to provide advice on and challenge to departmental spending, strategies and priorities. All departmental CSAs attend regular meetings of the Committee of CSAs (CSAC), chaired by the GSCA. The GCSA also attends the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science and Innovation, ED(SI). ED(SI) is chaired by the Minister for Science and Innovation and includes Ministers from the Treasury and "all departments in which science plays a key role in the formation and delivery of policy" (pp 299-301).

31.  The GCSA reports quarterly to ED(SI) on departmental research and development spending (Q 516). ED(SI) has "agreed" that departments "should consult" the GCSA and the Treasury "in advance of any potential cuts to research budgets or expenditure".[17] It is not clear, however, how that will work in practice: for example, Home Office research and development spend is not calculated in advance (Q 18 in Appendix 7).

32.  Lord Sainsbury told us that ring fencing departmental research and development budgets would make them less vulnerable in the event of pressure on the department's overall budget (Q 51). However, Miles Parker, Deputy CSA and Director for Evidence at the Department for Environment, Food Rural Affairs (Defra), disagreed (QQ 100, 101). Rather, he and other representatives of Government departments emphasised the need to increase understanding of the role of evidence in formulating informed policy and of the consequences for policy objectives of reductions in research and development spending (QQ 104, 31, 79, 101). To do that, science advisers need to be present at meetings at which departmental policy objectives and the research to support them are discussed.

33.  Professor Beddington has proposed that each department's board should include its CSA or another senior analyst (p 298),[18] but some departmental boards meet without a CSA or senior analyst even present (p 427, Q 498).

34.  We recommend that, as part of his oversight role, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser should be present at meetings with the Treasury at which departmental budgets are considered.

35.  We further recommend that all departmental Chief Scientific Advisers should provide Ministers with timely information in advance of departmental budget negotiations.

Improved mechanisms for setting priorities

36.  We have identified two broad areas in which the mechanisms for setting priorities can be improved. We acknowledge that there are others. The two areas are:

  • developing formal mechanisms for identifying major cross-cutting challenges, including the "grand challenges", and, where appropriate, putting in place cross-departmental budgets;
  • strengthening the role of independent external advice to Government, including a review of the role of the Council for Science and Technology.


37.  Responding to major cross-cutting policy challenges, such as energy security, food security and climate change, requires collaboration—across research institutions, disciplines, funding organisations, Government departments and international boundaries. As Professor Robert Watson, CSA at Defra, told us, we have to break through the "stove pipes" among and within institutions that fund research (Q 96). The Government have a role to play in facilitating co-ordination and collaboration among researchers in different disciplines and across different funding streams in order to respond quickly and effectively to such "grand challenges" (p 120, QQ 374, 432, 433).

38.  Yet, according to our witnesses, research is often not translated into policy solutions. In part, this is because of "the lack of incentive for collaborations within our research system" as a result of "highly competitive" funding systems and the complex structure of the research councils, which do not reward or facilitate interdisciplinary or ground-breaking research (QQ 472, 473, 450, 248, 21, 500; pp 470, 199, 495, 120).

39.  More significantly, we received evidence that co-ordination across Government and between departments was weak and inconsistent, and that departmental priorities outweighed cross-Government priorities (p 120). Professor Beddington thought that departmental "silos" presented particular difficulties in tackling both cross-cutting policy areas (Q 500) and "orphan issues", for which no one department has responsibility (Q 13 in Appendix 7). Professor Sir John Bell, Chair of the Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research, recognised that "current structures" presented a "really serious problem" that "affects science probably more than it affects anything else" (Q 425). Across Whitehall, projects can suffer from the lack of a single budget or budget holder and having, instead, "a committee of sub-budget holders" with different and even competing interests, because the budgets reside within different Government departments under individual accounting officers (QQ 429, 433, 24). Lord Drayson admitted that departmental "sovereignty" did not facilitate cross-departmental research activity (Q 561), and suggested that "additional structures" were required (Q 562).

40.  In our view, formal mechanisms should be put in place to remedy this deficiency. We recommend that the Government should establish appropriate mechanisms for:

  • identifying major cross-cutting policy challenges; and
  • funding and co-ordinating appropriate responses to such policy challenges.

We further recommend that:

  • separate budgets should be made available for research programmes to respond to major cross-cutting policy challenges;
  • each research programme to respond to such policy challenges should have one, readily identifiable, budget-holder who would be ultimately responsible for delivering the programme; and
  • management and delivery of research programmes to respond to such policy challenges should feature prominently in budget holders' performance appraisals.


41.  In addition to internal sources, Ministers receive science advice from external independent advisory organisations, such as the Council for Science and Technology (CST).[19] According to Jeremy Clayton, Deputy Head of the Government Office for Science: "All the committees and advisory bodies you could want are in the system"; but, as he says, "what we need to do is make sure that the ones we do have are effective" (Q 28). We propose three specific areas where improvements should be made to strengthen the contribution of external advice.

Consultation and transparency

42.  During each Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), BIS allocates funding to individual research councils and national academies on the basis of prospective and retrospective performance assessment, according to the Haldane Principle.[20] In recent years, this process of allocation has been criticised for a lack of transparency (pp 193, 360).[21] The Government are committed to improving transparency and the allocation process by "consulting more extensively" before the next CSR (p 2). The consultation will include the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the British Academy, the CST, the CSAC and the Confederation of British Industry, and will be made public (Q 518). We welcome the Government's commitment.

Departmental commissioning of research

43.  Government departments conduct or commission research in order to provide evidence to inform policy interventions (pp 1, 379, 412, 446; Q 101). The evidence we received included concerns that some departments were not acting as intelligent customers in commissioning research. Departmental commissioning processes were described as "ad hoc and inefficient" (p 200). This, along with other shortcomings such as a lack of the necessary technical understanding resulting in "over-reliance on consultancies", could affect the quality of the commissioned research (pp 146, 200, 470, 476). These problems persist despite retrospective reviews by the Government Office for Science and the Cabinet Office of individual departments' approaches to research prioritisation and use of evidence (pp 24-5).

44.  One departmental CSA assured us that departments would not fund research that was not of high quality (Q 113). However, Professor Beddington was "absolutely sure" that departmental commissioning of research for policy formulation did not always involve the necessary "virtuous circle" of posing "researchable" questions, with expert external peer review; nor, in his view, was there always the necessary "expertise to know who to ask and who to ask what to ask" (Q 503). In our view, this aspect—knowing who to ask and what to ask—is fundamental.

45.  Departmental CSAs are responsible for the adequacy of the evidence base and the allocation of funding for research within their department (p 384). However, some of the evidence we received suggested that the influence of CSAs over the research agenda varied among departments (pp 420, 252).

46.  In our view, the support provided by a departmental CSA is critical to a department's commissioning of research. We recommend that the departmental Chief Scientific Adviser should be consulted as an integral part of the commissioning process, in particular in helping to identify the nature of the advice sought and the relevant expertise.

Council for Science and Technology

47.  The CST is the Government's highest level independent science advisory group and reports directly to the Prime Minister. We had some difficulty in establishing the precise role of the CST in the process of priority setting for research funding and in relation to oversight of publicly funded research and development spending. The Institute of Physics described the CST as an "underexploited resource" with limited impact (pp 427, 195).

48.  We recommend that the Government commission an independent, external review of the role, responsibilities, objectives and reporting arrangements of the Council for Science and Technology and the use made of its advice.

16   For full details of the roles and responsibilities of these (and other) science advisers, see Science and Engineering in Government: An Overview of the Government's Approach, Government Office for Science, October 2009, pp 14-23.  Back

17   Ibid., p 4. Back

18   Ibid., p 25, para 3.8. Back

19   In February 2010, we wrote to Lord Drayson on the provision of independent scientific advice to Government (see Appendix 6). Back

20   See footnote 30 below. For a full discussion of the principle, including its history, see House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, 8th Report (2008-09): Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, (HC Paper 168), pp 40-4. Back

21   For a full discussion of the lack of transparency in the allocation process, in particular in the role of Government in setting research council priorities, see House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, 8th Report (2008-09): Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy (HC Paper 168), pp 45-6. Back

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