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

CHAPTER 4: flagging up further issues


49.  We received evidence on a range of other issues relating to the prioritisation of publicly funded research. They included the balance between "responsive-mode" and "targeted" research; supporting private-sector research and "innovation"; increasing concentration of research resources; and the use of "impact" as a criterion in funding decisions. We recognise the importance and complexity of these issues. Although we have not, at this stage, explored them fully, we draw them to the attention of the House as matters to which, we anticipate, this Committee will wish to return in due course.

"Responsive-mode" and "targeted" research

50.  In February 2009, Lord Drayson posed the question whether "the balance of investment in science and innovation" should "favour those areas in which the UK has clear competitive advantage".[22] In evidence to us in February 2010, he suggested that the approach of targeting funding on competitive areas presented "part of the answer to the problem" that economic pressure presents (QQ 581-2).

51.  We recognise that some targeting of research is needed—for example, to meet departmental policy objectives (p 1); to achieve the necessary scale of activity within an area of science in which major infrastructure and skills are required (pp 505-6; Q 289); to encourage the development or application of research in areas of identified academic excellence or economic strength (p 231, QQ 371, 343); and to respond to identified major cross-cutting policy challenges (pp 147, 396, 447; QQ 290, 340, 422, 473, 484).

52.  However, some witnesses expressed anxiety about the possibility of responsive-mode research being targeted. It was suggested that targeted research funding might, in some circumstances, result in a conflict with the principle of excellence: whereas funding for responsive-mode research is "highly competitive" and "can raise standards" (p 194), a targeted approach risked funding "poorer quality" or even "mediocre" research (pp 353, 357). Much of the evidence we received emphasised the importance of "basic" research, in particular in generating the most important breakthroughs (pp 353, 496) and as a necessary precursor to much applied research (p 427). Furthermore, a low level of public funding for responsive-mode research had a disproportionate effect on some disciplines, such as mathematics and chemistry, because of a lack of alternative sources of funding (p 367, Q 474). Recent assessments of the future of research have recommended increasing the funding available for individual researchers, as opposed to particular research projects, in order to protect the excellence associated with "responsive-mode" research.[23]

53.  Some witnesses argued that, in order to find necessary solutions to societal challenges in a time of financial constraint, the "delicate balance" between targeted and responsive-mode research needed "to swing towards targeted research in the short to medium-term" (pp 98, 100). In contrast, others argued that the balance had already "swung too far" towards targeted research (pp 417, 496, 501). Figures on research council funding for responsive-mode and applied research show that the amount of funding allocated to responsive-mode research has remained fairly constant—or, indeed, in the case of some research councils, that funding for responsive-mode research has increased (pp 174-9).[24] Some witnesses said that the balance between responsive-mode and targeted research should be "dynamic" rather than "static" (pp 100, 194); and that there was "no magic formula" (p 360): it was a "judgement call" (Q 291), the success of which could be evaluated only retrospectively (QQ 292, 376).

54.  It goes without saying that an appropriate balance needs to be maintained between the different types of research. We were told that, in the light of its inherent unpredictability, responsive-mode research is likely to fare less well in challenging economic circumstances than targeted research (pp 417, 467). With this in mind, we urge research councils, in determining the appropriate balance, to give due consideration to the role and importance of responsive-mode research in meeting the broader objectives of research.

Supporting private-sector research and innovation

55.  The UK's ability to translate research into applications remains poor in comparison with the volume of high-quality research carried out in the UK (pp 254-5, 356, 420, 422-3, 426, 469, QQ 292, 414, 574). Maximising the benefits of research would therefore require a significant increase in the effort devoted to the translation of research findings into successful applications. In the light of the importance of the contribution of private-sector investment in fulfilling that objective, the Government have a role in supporting such investment both directly and indirectly (QQ 362, 456).[25]

56.  The translation of research into new products, services or processes is part of the process of "innovation", which the Government have made a national priority.[26] Public funding mechanisms to support "innovation" include the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), R&D Tax Credits, the UK Innovation Investment Fund and the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) (see Appendix 5). Regulatory interventions, standards, regional development agencies, and departmental institutions and agencies also play an important role (p 22, QQ 397, 393-6).

57.  In order to attract private-sector research investment and thereby encourage innovation in the UK, witnesses argued that relevant policies had to be clear and consistent over the long term (QQ 394, 460, 375, 394, 456). Some witnesses told us that UK innovation policy lacked coherence and a strategic approach; and that the clarity and stability provided by a strategic approach were vital in encouraging private-sector decisions to invest in research (QQ 362, 375, 394, 456, 460, 472). The CST report A Vision for UK Research, published in March 2010, stated that the Government need to develop consistent, focused long-term industrial strategies, backing novel key technologies with global market potential to provide a framework for research investment by the private sector, research councils and the TSB.[27]

58.  A number of witnesses made suggestions to help achieve this, including expanding the role and increasing the resources of the TSB, and developing a system of large research centres (pp 194, 200, 441, QQ 362, 407, 460, 471). We await with interest the publication of Hermann Hauser's review of how the UK might maximise its research potential, and the Government's response to both that review and the CST's recent report.

Increasing concentration of research resources

59.  We recognise that for some research activity, such as that based on large experimental facilities, or for more applied research projects responding to major policy challenges, concentrating relevant skills and financial resources in particular locations may be necessary in order to achieve the necessary scale of effort and facilitate knowledge transfer. However, the implications of concentrating research resources within particular institutions are poorly understood, and it was suggested to us that the evidence base to support further concentration remains weak (Q 448). Again, we await with interest the publication of Hermann Hauser's review, which we anticipate will cover the role of concentration of research resources in realising the full potential of UK research.


60.  In recent years "impact" has been increasingly used as a criterion both retrospectively, in research council delivery plans and evaluations, and prospectively, in individual grant applications to research councils. It is a concept that encompasses more than economic impact. Professor Alan Thorpe, Chair of the Research Councils UK Executive Group and Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, for example, said that "we do not regard impact as narrowly as ... economic benefit ... it is a very broad concept" (Q 271).

61.  Professor Dame Janet Finch, co-Chair of the Council for Science and Technology, observed that "any assessment of impact needs to take into account that breadth" (Q 477). Measuring "impact" presents difficulties. Professor Leszek Borysiewicz, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC), for example, admitted that the MRC was "struggling" to measure societal impact (Q 272). Professor Sir Martin Taylor, Chair of the Royal Society's Fruits of Curiosity project, said that scientists were often very poor judges of the likely impact of their research (Q 478). Witnesses also expressed anxiety about the timescale involved in measuring research impact (pp 345, 360, 497, 506, Q 478). As Professor Beddington, said, "almost by definition, the impact of research comes after some variable time-lag, depending on the research ... whether one could have actually had that degree of foresight to say that some particular development would actually prove to be enormously important some decades later ... is difficult" (Q 509).

62.  Professor Dame Janet Finch clearly stated that the CST's view of prospective assessment of impact was that "there should not be any principle other than excellence in the identification of [basic] research projects to be funded" (Q 477). Professor Beddington believed that it was almost impossible "to have a criterion on the basis of impact other than the fact that a particular piece of research is solving a problem that we can well identify" (Q 509).

63.  Nevertheless, other witnesses told us that including consideration of impact in prospective assessments might result in opportunities for collaboration in and development of research that would not otherwise arise (QQ 274, 275, 277) and that this had brought about an important culture change (Q 451). Professor Adrian Smith, BIS's Director General, Science and Research, described prospective assessment of impact as an attempt to encourage "a culture, an awareness and a behaviour change" to identify and support opportunities for exploitation (Q 552).

64.  The term "impact" is not clearly understood and is ambiguous, not least because it is multi-dimensional in nature. However, it is often used as if it were well defined and could, indeed, be quantified. In our view, the methods of assessing and quantifying "impact" have not been sufficiently developed and justified. We therefore have reservations about the use of "impact" as a criterion in prospective assessments of individual applications for funding to research councils. We therefore propose that, when the relevant funding organisation considers "impact" to be a material factor in funding research, it should make an explicit statement of the nature and quantifiability of the expected impact of the research in question.

65.  The new retrospective assessment proposed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), called the Research Excellence Framework (REF), "will for the first time explicitly take account of the impact research makes on the economy and society" (p 3). HEFCE proposes a weighting for impact in the REF of 25 per cent. HEFCE does not propose "any trade-off between impact and excellence" but will assess only "impact that arises from excellent research", whether "curiosity driven" or "applied" (Q 219). Many respondents to HEFCE's recent consultation on the REF expressed concern about the inclusion of research "impact" as a criterion, arguing that the assessment of "impact" would be subjective. We understand HEFCE's wish to take account of the wider impact of research, but are yet to be convinced that a practicable and fair way of doing so has been found. We therefore recommend that, in HEFCE's proposed new retrospective assessment, the weighting given to impact should be significantly less than the 25 per cent proposed.

22   Speech to the Foundation for Science and Technology, 4 February 2009. Back

23   A Vision for UK Research, Council for Science and Technology, March 2010, p 25; The Scientific Century, Royal Society, March 2010, p 48. Back

24   The Scientific Century, Royal Society, March 2010, p 15. Back

25   The Government provide direct funding to support private-sector research investment through the UK Innovation Investment Fund and the Small Business Research Initiative. Tax credits are available for private-sector research investment. In the December 2009 Pre-Budget report, the Government announced the introduction in April 2013 of the Patent Box initiative, under which companies that develop a patented technology in the UK will be eligible for a reduced rate of corporation tax (see Appendix 5). Back

26   Innovation Nation, Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, March 2008. Back

27   A Vision for UK Research, Council for Science and Technology, March 2010, p 30.  Back

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