This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
This is an abridged collation of some of the interesting reading I came across/finally got round to over the Christmas break.
Careers and science
- Steve Caplan, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska, questions whether the increasing focus on ‘translational research’ will restrict the next generation from asking the fundamental questions in basic science – and why this is dangerous.
- … Elsewhere, he argues that despite a lack of academic careers (relative to the number of PhD positions) we should train more students to PhD level if we also improve their training – not just preparing them for academic careers. (I tend to refer to this as ‘PhD 2.0’.) He also highlights this Individual Development Plan tool from AAAS’ Science Careers.
- Science Insider reports that a blogger who exposes scientific fraud has stopped posting following legal threats. Paul Brookes, Associate Professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, hopes to set up a new site with his real name behind it. (In related news, Fang Shi-min – a freelance science journalist and biochemist – recently shared the inaugural John Maddox prize for uncovering scientific fraud in China.)
- Times Higher Education publishes an article highlighting a US study, which argues that international groups of scholars bring complementary skills and ideas that aid research, resulting in a greater number of papers, which – in turn – are more highly cited.
- The BBSRC will announce full details of two schemes to support the translation of new ideas in biotechnology and bioenergy into commercial applications this month. Both will aim to foster industrial collaboration.
- Christine Fernandez, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, summarises a workshop which gave eight tips to publish high impact.
Women in science
- The organisers of the SpotOn London conference compile a useful selection of resources for female scientists looking to raise their profiles online (some also apply to men).
- Curt Rice, Vice President for Research & Development at the University of Tromsø, writes a great article about how quotas raise quality, and how diversity is about more than social justice. He also includes a succinct account of the ‘paradox of meritocracy’.
- The House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee take oral evidence for their Women in the Workplace inquiry. The transcript of the session with Dame Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell (Chair of the Royal Society of Edinburgh inquiry into Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), Kate Sloyan (Institute of Physics 2012 Very Early Career Woman Physicist of the Year Award winner), and Helen Wollaston and Trudy Norris Grey (both of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Campaign) is worth reading.
Science for the economy
- David Docherty, Chief Executive of the Council For Industry and Higher Education, summarises the Growing Value report (PDF), which urges the government to make sustained, ‘steady-handed’, strategic commitments to research; prioritising collaboration between universities and business, and entrepreneurism.
- The Technology Strategy Board explain that the biosciences are a priority for them because they “could form the basis of a new technical revolution” (PDF, from page 12). They outline the opportunities for business and the challenges for innovation.
- Curt Rice (again), summarises a recently published paper on Open Evaluation, arguing that changes to how we evaluate are essential to the Open Access movement.
- The latest issue of The Journal of the Foundation for Science and Technology (PDF) features articles on implementing the Finch Report from Professor Sir John Enderby, as well as an article from Julian Huppert MP about how he uses social media. There is also a piece by Professor Pete Downes (former Chair of the Biochemical Society Policy Committee) about how universities can catalyse innovation. Crucially, he highlights that we must produce graduates who understand this and are interested.
The policy process
- Kirsty Newman (from the Department for International Development, but writing on her personal blog) says that when looked at in the right context, policy making processes need not be complex or complicated to engage with.
- Nature has published a forward look at what they see the key stories of 2013 being, including the results of a clinical trial which uses human embryonic stem cells.
This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
I attended ESOF (the Euroscience Open Forum) on Friday, in the fair city of Dublin. I took a lot away from it (not least that riding a Vespa to Gatwick isn’t a very good idea). As I’m shortly to take the best part of three weeks off for the Olympics, I will have plenty of food for thought, particularly on careers, on which I attended a number of sessions.
ESOF is a huge, biennial behemoth (the next one will be held in Copenhagen) but in a good way – I was very impressed. On Friday, the sessions ran from 8:00 to 18:30, with around ten parallel sessions at a time and no designated breaks (I took the opportunity of a Bob Geldof keynote to duck out and get a sandwich). The UK is perhaps not as engaged in the European science ideal as other countries, but on first reflection, I noted that many of the discussions were similar to those going on in the UK. Here are my scribbles from Máire Geoghegan-Quinn’s keynote speech, the current European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science (excuse the roughness):
- Politicians should deploy the scientific method whenever possible, need to remind of that
- Science vital for future – and intellectual inquiry will always explore most profound ideas
- Higgs – excitement across all ages, groups and countries
- Challenge-driven research important, but curiosity-driven research leads to great discoveries – silicon chips (Bohr), WWW
- Challenge-driven research also brings fundamental benefits – e.g. aero wings and fluid dynamics
- Horizon 2020 – not everyone happy with large settlement, so keep making the case
- ERA – single market for ideas in Europe – increased competition and cooperation between member states (existing example of CERN). Goes live soon. Another important strand is Open Access. Need everyone to line up behind ERA – will deliver science excellence for Europe. Will rely on political will and trust
- March of progress will rely on centrality of science and public trust – must communicate well e.g. on synthetic biology (the same day, ‘A synthetic biology roadmap for the UK‘ was published)
- Thriving intersectoral ecosystem is necessary for solving problems
- Already examples of successful collaborations and things going on in background – Grand Challenges a good and relatively cheap way of stimulating it
- DARPA – $1m for driverless car. Led to many partnerships
- Human Genome Project – for each $ spent, $140 generated
- Open access will help collaboration. People cannot always be co-located, but could be huge enabling factor – individuals, poorer countries, SMEs – which then pump money back into local community – more tax – more research funding…
- Should we be aiming to get tangible outputs back from publicly funded research?
- We must support both forms of research. This is where ideal spin-off situation arises
- Can’t aim to capitalise on specific things before know what outcomes will be.
Elsewhere, I heard some interesting tips from Dr Silvia Giordani from Trinity College Dublin on careers:
- “Change is good… Being crazy is rewarded in the end.”
- “Learn as much as you can early, and you can put it together later.”
- “Network, network, network!”
Peer review guide launched
The previous day, Sense About Science launched their ‘Peer Review: The nuts and bolts’ guide at the conference. Despite the quickening evolution of the publishing landscape, peer review – as I heard at a recent(ish) meeting of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee – remains the gold standard for determining the soundness of scientific papers, and misconceptions (particularly about open access journals) can be damaging.
The guide was produced by Sense About Science’s Voice of Young Science network, and provides a quick reference how peer-review works and how to do it. Helpfully, it features guidance from both sides of the fence – both editors and scientists at different stages of their careers, as well as other observers such as James Randerson from the Guardian. It is definitely recommended reading, although it acknowledges that formal training in the art of reviewing is variable in amount and availability.
If you were at ESOF too, let me know!
Peer Review: The nuts and bolts (PDF): http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/resources/99/Peer-review_The-nuts-and-bolts.pdf
Further reading (Science Careers blog): Become a Reviewer: Advancing and Contributing in the Scientific Establishment
This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
Yesterday, Valerie Vaz, MP for Walsall South, organised an adjournment debate on women in science [transcript here]. I recommend you read it. She set out clearly what many others fail to do: that the matter of equality and diversity is not only a social justice issue, but also of vital importance to our competitiveness, and the government needs to do more about it.
Ms Vaz, a Biochemistry graduate, referred to a recent survey run by the Biochemical Society, which sought to bring to light the main problems facing our members, and some solutions to these. Issues associated with having a family – including childcare and the detrimental effects of taking maternity leave or working flexibly/part time within the traditional academic career and funding structures, featured highly in the responses. Furthermore, more female than male academic staff are on fixed-term contracts, and Ms Vaz reported that the gap is increasing.
Such issues are a considerable problem at an individual level, but also pose a great risk to our competitiveness, as diversity in research (as well as a well-motivated community) is benficial for research and innovation. Within academia, some universities and departments are doing a lot to address these imbalances, as I was recently exposed to when I joined an Athena SWAN judging panel for the first time. However, I also realised that some don’t “get it”.
If we are to be an ‘innovation leader’ and secure the future strength of our science base, we need action now. I hope to raise this at Monday’s Science Question Time event on science and growth. Mr Willetts has shown signs that he buys into his role in solving the problems (attending the debate was a good sign), and said yesterday that he is to be accountable for mainstreaming the expertise developed by the UKRC, which used to be funded by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Willetts points to his direction to the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering to instigate a new diversity programme (the subject of the last Policy Lunchbox event). However, as the Royal Society of Chemistry points out, the funding for these programmes is relatively small. He needs to be doing more to promote change, and develop clear targets and a strategy. But I, and others, aren’t sure he gets the whole picture.
@jlush2 thank you. I think you are right.—
Meg Munn (@MegMunnMP) June 14, 2012
Mr Willetts took the opportunity the debate presented to draw attention to BIS support for Vitae, which provides careers support for researchers. He highlighted its role in helping postdoctoral researchers, that oft-neglected community, and his acknowledgement of their need for support is welcome. However, Vitae itself may be heading the way of the UKRC, as the latest Research Fortnight cover story reports: ‘Funding councils throw Vitae £3m lifeline – But careers body still loses more than half its core funding’. Indeed, one of the activities that will lose core funding, RF reports, is the GRADschools programme for postgraduate researchers. Maybe not something to be shouting about then.
Further reading: MPs debate women in STEM (Campaign for Science and Engineering blog)
The original version of this post appeared on the British Ecological Society’s Ecology and Policy Blog
As a whole, UK businesses invest less in research and development than their major international competitors, and there is more that the Government can do to address this disparity. That was the message from Beck Smith, Assistant Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), addressing yesterday’s meeting of the Policy Lunchbox network. Beck provided a fascinating overview of an area of policy that members of the Biochemical Society and British Ecological Society (partners in organising Policy Lunchbox) may know little about but, Beck made clear, should familiarise ourselves with given the vital importance of support from business to the health of the science base in the UK.
The previous Labour Government stated its aim to increase the overall investment in research and development (R&D) from all sources to 2.5% of GDP by 2014, although the current Government doesn’t intend to adopt national targets. In any case, at present, we stand at just 1.8% of GDP being invested; indicating the significant distance that remains for us to catch up with other ‘G7′ countries. Given that the UK Government is committed to tackling the budget deficit and therefore tightening spending, the importance of leveraging other sources for investment in R&D is clear. At the moment, however, the UK is third from bottom amongst the G7 group (ahead of Canada, just, and Italy) in terms of business spend on R&D. In 2009, the 1000 UK companies that invested the most in R&D spent a total of £25.3bn, down 0.6% on the previous year. So what can the Government do to address this potential downward trend?
First, Beck stressed, we need to understand why business and industry aren’t investing as much in R&D in the UK as it could do. Beck outlined research suggesting that one way this can be explained is as a combination of three factors, which collectively can be called ‘market failure’:
1. ‘Spillover rationale’: the suggestion that innovators find it difficult to appropriate all returns from their innovations. For example, the inventor of the first personal computer will have seen others move in to develop this technology and will now occupy a crowded space. This disincentiveses innovation. The Government can address this through means that allow companies to keep more of the benefits of their investments, for example through tax breaks such as the R&D tax credit.
2. Coordination failure: broadly speaking, difficulties encountered by groups of individuals or firms in acting collectively. There may be a failure of businesses to network sufficiently with organisations conducting research (or vice versa) that may be of benefit to them. This could be alleviated by the facilitation of partnerships between industry and universities.
3. Information failure: Differences in the information available to both parties prevent transactions from taking place. This argument suggests, for example, that businesses seeking financial support or partners for R&D projects simply don’t know where to find the necessary information to do so.
Beck suggested that there are a number of levers that Government could use to address these market failures – thereby encouraging greater support from business and industry for science in the UK – through focusing on the following areas:
1. Skills: Universities report that many students entering courses from A-levels require remedial lessons in, for example, mathematics and experimental design, in order to perform. Furthermore, industries have complained that they need to give new graduates from universities additional training before they are competent in their jobs. There have also been reports from industry surveys that there are a shortage of graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to fill posts. Alongside addressing school and university tuition there therefore appears a need to raise the profile of careers in science amongst young people (such as through the STEM Ambassadors programme).
Recent amendments to immigration requirements in the UK may also have sent a negative message to qualified STEM graduates from overseas – those who may be considering further study and research in the UK – regarding the UK’s reputation as a good place to pursue a scientific career. Although the Government has taken steps to address these issues for STEM graduates, these negative perceptions may take some time to dispel.
2. Financial environment: tax-breaks such as the ‘patent box’ (a corporation tax cut of 10% on all profits attributed to patents) could create a favourable environment for companies to invest in R&D. Beck also highlighted the positive role that ‘challenge prizes’, such as the $10 billion Ansari X Prize, can play in incentivising investment and scientific progress. Since the launch of the X Prize, to reward the development of the first viable craft for unmanned space flight, it is estimated that there has been an additional $100 billion of investment in this area of study.
3. Knowledge flow: the Government could amend the Research Excellence Framework, for example to make it easier for universities to employ those who have worked in industry. When budgets are cut within industry, Beck suggested, one of the first areas of investment to be cut is the travel and meetings budget. Employees therefore decrease their network at a time when this needs to be expanding. Facilitating the flow of information between researchers in academia and in industry can help to address this.
4. A long-term, cross-party strategy for science in the UK would also be very welcome.
Beck highlighted recent developments from Government which have gone some way to address the points raised. For example, an annual £250,000 prize fund has been announced (orders of magnitude less than the X Prize but nonetheless a step in the right direction), whilst the Government is pressing ahead with plans for research hubs to link business and academia (so called ‘Catapult Centres’, previously known as ‘Technology Innovation Centres’) to aid commercialisation. However, there are convincing arguments for the state to do much more; such as those recently presented in a work by Mariana Mazzucato called ‘The Entrepreneurial State’.
Speaking about the publication on yesterday’s Today Programme, in the document and online, Ms Mazzucato argues for public policy to be bold and courageous, stepping in to fund areas that the private sector has no interest in, as well as putting in place mechanisms to reap greater returns for itself for doing so. As an example, the United States supported the development of the internet by pouring huge amounts of money into the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which undertook a significant amount of the research underpinning the formation of what is now known as Silicon Valley. The private sector, Mariana suggests, has a reputation of coming into areas of research 15–20 years after a large amount of state investment. It cannot therefore be seen as the answer to addressing deficits in state funding for science and innovation (although it is clearly complementary); the Government must find innovative ways of funding large-scale investment in the science base in this country if we want to see the emergence of another Google in the UK, for example.
Policy Lunchbox is a network for Policy Officers and others working in learned societies and the third sector. It is run jointly by the British Ecological Society and Biochemical Society. See our webpage for details of forthcoming events. The next event will be on how to get the most from party conferences.
The original version of this post appeared on the British Ecological Society’s Ecology and Policy Blog.
The Biochemical Society, together with the British Ecological Society, hosted another successful Policy Lunchbox at Charles Darwin House yesterday. The guest speaker was Dr David Bott, Director of Innovation Programmes at the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), who delivered an engaging talk on the process of turning innovative ideas into real products and services. David identified a number of barriers to this progression and outlined how the TSB is working to address them. His presentation (MS Powerpoint) can be downloaded from the Policy Lunchbox listings page.
One of the biggest issues is the significant risk involved in pursuing innovative ideas, as well as a lack of long-term support for innovative projects due to a demand for immediate returns on investments. David highlighted that people need to be educated better about risk to help change these attitudes, and we also heard that there is also a lack of long-term political planning. The UK Government does not harness its considerable market influence, which has the potential to drive innovation in its suppliers through forward-thinking procurement and regulation, alongside tax breaks to encourage investment in certain technologies, he said. Since its creation, the TSB has developed a ‘toolbox’ of solutions to these barriers including providing coherent, long-term support to those involved in innovation and encouraging knowledge exchange, for example by hosting ‘Missions’ to introduce innovators to potential competitors, funders and collaborators. They have also created _connect, an online social network for innovators which aims to ‘match’ people with similar interests.
David set out how the TSB’s budget is worked out, highlighting sustainability as a specific, dedicated programme which underpins all of the board’s work, despite a proportionally small allocation. The TSB works across a huge range of different areas – see slide 5 of David’s presentation, which shows the proportion of the budget spent in each – with the recently monikered Catapults being allocated around 20% of this. These include the new Cell Therapy Catapult, as the TSB looks to take advantage of an industry which they expect to be worth £3.1billion by 2014. Of around 160 employees at the TSB, the core are made up of individuals who trained as scientists but also have business and industrial experience. This experience is essential as each industry advances at different speeds, which needs to be understood.
Whilst healthcare and the biosciences are strategically important areas for the TSB, one area that represents a key theme throughout their work is the environment. The need to double food production by 2050 will require significant innovation in agriculture, whilst increasing energy production without worsening damage to the environment will require novel design and planning. In response to this energy challenge, one of the Catapults will focus on Offshore Renewable Energy, and the TSB is already contributing to innovative environmental projects elsewhere. A Demonstrator Project (designed to encourage further innovation in the sector) tested consumer responses to newly introduced electric cars; measuring their habits, attitudes and opinions of the vehicles when using them for a year. Another scheme – Retrofit for the Future – used innovative technologies to adapt 118 social houses to reduce their carbon emissions by 80% and found significant energy and money savings for the residents.
With the Business Secretary Vince Cable MP announcing a further Catapult Centre yesterday and a range of funding opportunities and events planned for the new year, the TSB’s valuable work in driving innovation is set to continue. Importantly though, David acknowleged that without investment in the research base, there wouldn’t be anything to commercialise.
David Bott’s presentation at the Policy Lunchbox was well received by all the attendees and led to some very interesting discussion afterwards. We would like to thank David Bott for his participation, and everyone who attended. The TSB report ‘Concept to Commercialisation’, which discusses the work of the TSB further is available online.
The next Policy Lunchbox event on 6th March will see Beck Smith, Assistant Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, discuss ‘How can the Government incentivise private sector investment in research and development?’ This event is fully booked, but to join the waiting list you can contact me at the Biochemical Society.
This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
Policy Lunchbox was privileged on Friday to host the first presentation on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ (BIS) new Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth since its launch last Thursday. Grant Peggie, Head of Innovation and Investment at BIS, gave a run down of the key points to the assembled members of the Policy Lunchbox community over mince pies and mulled wine. Here’s a summary of what he had to say.
Whilst the UK is host to world class researchers and punches above its weight in terms of pure research output, we are not as good at encouraging and developing strategic partnerships with the rest of the ‘innovation ecosystem’ – compared to near neighbours such as France, Germany and Sweden, and also other countries like the USA, said Grant. As well as places where research takes place, business, finance and bodies such as standards offices must all work together to support ‘innovation for growth’. Grant also emphasised that policy makers need to understand that it is important for innovation to take place in all sectors – not just in traditional areas like high-tech industry – including fields like utilities and construction.
The Strategy document sets out medium and long term mechanisms through which the government intends to support innovation for growth, having identified it as something we need to exploit. The timescale (as laid out in a section at the end of the document) for instigating all the projects goes no further than 2015, as the government has been unwilling to commit to longer term plans during this lasting period of austerity. However, Grant was reassuring when questioned about short-termism, stating that the announced Technology Strategy Board (TSB) focus areas – such as graphene development – would have lasting legacies. For example, the Graphene Global Research and Innovation Hub (possibly to be established in Manchester, although the location decision rests with the TSB and Research Councils in accordance with the Haldane principle) should be operational within four years, by which time some of the other policies laid out in the document should help support its long-term activity. The Government has committed £50m to graphene research through the spending review period and has pinned hopes on profitable applications being developed in the UK.
On the other strategic areas highlighted, we heard that the location of a new ‘Cell Therapy Catapult Centre’ (the less said about this moniker the better) in London would be decided next year, although there was pressure to land it in East London. This will also be the home of the Open Data Institute, to be founded in Shoreditch and led by Professor Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee. People will notice that this isn’t actually a new announcement, and indeed Grant admitted that not much of the chapter from which this announcement and several others can be found (entitled ‘Knowledge and Innovation’) is actually new, but sets out what the Government has committed to since this spring/summer. How the Institute will fit in with the opening up of NHS data announced by David Cameron as part of the new Strategy for UK Life Sciences remains to be seen. The datasets to be prioritised have been named as transport, weather and health.
Concerning the Research Councils, changes are afoot. Multi-institutional bids for funding will be allowed according to a framework to be published in February, providing new opportunities for consortia such as the N8 group (the Universities of Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York) to apply for funding together. Furthermore, groups such as charities not based within Universities will also be able to apply for funding. This means that there will be more funding streams, although there won’t be more money up for grabs. Particularly regarding the new rules on consortia, this could lead to very large funding awards being made, with one potential knock-on effect being the restriction of traditional award recipients even further – in what are already straitened times. Grant agreed that this was a risk, although this policy did come out of consultation with universities. Another outcome could be on the institutional and geographical spread of awards, which are already a contentious issue. On the other side, it is hoped that larger, consortia based funding could lead to more matched funding bids from pharmaceutical companies. These changes will certainly need to be follow closely next year. The Research Councils have also agreed to invest £2 million in the development of a UK ‘Gateway to Research’. Plans remain sketchy, but should allow open access to Research Council funded research data and other information by 2013. The scheme aims to be flexible and allow for non-Research Council research to be catalogued here too. This has the potential to be a really exciting and useful resource – if they get it right regarding the usability of data – especially for publicising research which could be commercialised. Smaller companies without extensive access to horizon-scanning resources could have greatly improved access and more business relationships may arise.
The bottom line, what else is new, and forthcoming work
In total, according to BIS figures, we heard that £610 million has been committed to capital in science since January. The headline announcements new to this Statement are highlighted in the BIS press release. However, as already alluded to, there is no ’10 year plan’ or similar long-term vision as the science community would like to see, representing a real long-term commitment to science as a driver of growth. We may expect reassessments to be made towards the end of the spending review period (ending in 2015).
Some of the other plans we received a run-down of are:
- The Economics Paper published alongside the main strategy document focuses on innovation (and is the first to do so since the mid ‘90s) and Grant revealed that a separate analysis of science would be published next year.
- As well as Cell Therapy, the other Catapult Centres will be High Value Manufacturing and Offshore Renewable Energy, with three more to be confirmed.
- The previously announced Biomedical Catalyst Fund will total £180 million, half each from the TSB and the Medical Research Council (MRC). This fund will be focussed on commercial medicine and proof of concept research. The TSB investment was newly announced in the Strategy for UK Life Sciences released earlier in the week.
- There will be an extra £75 million for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) through the resurrected Smart scheme – to come from the TSB – as first announced in the Autumn Statement. The TSB will also implement a new innovation voucher programme to support collaboration between SMEs and external knowledge providers. The first vouchers will be awarded next year.
- The Launchpad initiative will be extended – providing intensive support for specific sectoral clusters in chosen locations, with the aim of attracting follow-up ‘angel investment’. Grant hinted that a life science Launchpad was being considered for the Scottish central belt.
- The Red Tape Challenge will be extended, investigating the bureaucratic barriers that inhibit innovation – including those set by government. Further challenges identified are the barriers posed by procurement methods.
- Tax credits to incentivise research and development in the UK will be introduced in Budget 2013.
- The TSB will gain more staff to make sure we can leverage as much EU funding as possible in the future.
- We are going to embark on a joint research agreement with China, funding bi-lateral projects. Joint research calls with the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology are expected during 2012.
The delivery plan makes it clear that all the policies must be followed through, although the mechanisms have not yet been decided.
Naturally, Grant wanted to highlight all the positives of the Strategy, but as he said, having RCUK and the CBI saying good things is a good sign that they seem to have hit several right notes. And, whilst the Strategy certainly emphasises innovation rather than research, Grant explained that the rationale for this was two-fold: firstly that there was no desire to “throw research up in the air again”; and secondly that whilst research is a vital strength of the UK, innovation is in greater need of attention, particularly concerning commercial exploitation.
Last word – still no commitment on postgraduates
Grant was candid when asked about the lack of focus on post-graduates in recent government publications, acknowledging this point but regrettably not revealing any firm intention for anything to be done. However, he reported strong awareness that this is a live issue, citing the influence of Twitter as a significant pressure for a concerted effort from BIS in this area. The strategy is also noticably silent on visa restrictions for talented science graduates.
Innovation and Research Strategy, and Economics Paper: http://www.bis.gov.uk/innovatingforgrowth
Strategy for UK Life Sciences: http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/innovation/docs/s/11-1429-strategy-for-uk-life-sciences
Autumn Statement: http://cdn.hm-treasury.gov.uk/autumn_statement.pdf
This blog post was written by Beck Smith, the Biochemical Society’s Head of Policy.
At Queen Mary, University of London this morning, Vince Cable made his most revealing speech yet about the future of science in the UK.
While he begin his speech by stating that ‘my colleagues, including at the Treasury, value the contribution of UK science’ what followed suggested that a valued contribution would not be sufficient to protect science from significant spending cuts.
Setting the scene with ‘we face the tightest spending round since post-War demobilisation’ and ‘the Labour Government was planning deep cuts of 20%-25% in the budget of that department’, the science community looks set to assume the brace position.
Dr Cable believes the question he has to address is ‘can we achieve more with less?’ but also recognises the distance between himself and the setting of current practice of setting research priorities through peer review. While the Government may not be able to directly set research priorities, ‘the Government spends £6bn a year supporting science and research and it is right that I should speak about strategic priorities.’
Dr Cable peppers his speech with questions, in addition to ‘can we achieve more with less?’, he also asks:
- How far should policy be driven by economic impact?
- How does Government spending in scientific research contribute to the economy?
- How do we economise without damaging science?
- How to prioritise?
- … How we maximise the contribution of Government supported research to wealth creation?
- How to encourage academics to collaborate with industry to maximise the benefit of their research?
Citing the OECD 2010 innovation report which ‘shows that investment in intangible assets helped account for between two-thirds and three-quarters of labour productivity growth. It also suggested that innovation is a key source of future growth for emerging economies’ the expectation of and focus on research innovation to deliver is a key theme through the speech. Indeed, the OECD speech concluded that, ‘Cutting back public investment in support of innovation may provide short-term fiscal relief, but will damage the foundations of long-term growth.’ Despite acknowledging the increase in science spends seen in the US, China and Germany, it seems that the key message heard from the OECD report by Government is that ‘there is considerable scope to improve the efficiency of government spending’.
On the mechanism of cuts, Dr Cable disfavours salami slicing and appears wary of specialisation for two reasons:
- Decisions on which areas should be specialised should be not politicised
- Many of the ‘choices are not choices at all because disciplines interact’
Bearing these points in mind, Dr Cable appears to favour the identification of broad problems e.g. challenges thrown up by an ageing population which require collaboration across a number of disciplines. In addition to the identification of broad problems, Dr Cable suggests ‘there is a case for identifying and building up the areas where the UK is truly a world leader’ e.g. stem cells and regenerative medicine, plastic electronics and advanced manufacturing amongst others.
In answer to the question of ‘How to prioritise’, Dr Cable states a preference s to ‘ration research funding by excellence and back research terms of international quality – and screen out mediocrity – regardless of where they are and what they do.’ He goes on to say that ‘It is worth noting that in the RAE 54 per cent of submitted work was defined as world class and that is the area where funding should be concentrated.’
This ’54 per cent’ has proven to be of the most discussed parts of Dr Cable’s speech, with many believing this to be an arbitrary figure. Blogger Telescoper said in his post ‘Unravelling Cable’, ‘The comment is made all the more meaningless, however, because the 54% was actually imposed on the assessment panels anyway; they were told to match the outcome of their deliberations to a target profile. The figure quoted is therefore hardly an objective measure of the quality of scientific research in the UK.’
Towards the end of his speech, Dr Cable turns his attention to the importance of international collaboration (and the need to break down existing barriers to collaboration), the UK and ‘its attractiveness as a destination for the brightest scientists, researchers and engineers from all over the world.’ He then goes on to say, ‘UK researchers already have an excellent record of working across borders. Almost half of more than 90,000 research articles published by UK researchers in 2008 had a co-author from another country. Co-authorship with non-UK collaborators tends to produce significant impact gains e.g. papers with USA, Germany, France have impact 50% higher than the UK research base average.
However, in recognising the investment other countries are making in science, it remains to be seen how attractive the UK will be able to remain, as both a place in which to do science and as a potential collaborator. A blogpost from the Campaign for Science and Engineering exemplifies the difference in attitude between Dr Cable and other world leaders in their (financial) support for science.
Dr Cable’s speech ends with a return to an emphasis on innovation, ‘The key is to find ways of transforming research into innovation. The UK has a strong record but we need to do more. This involves building stronger links between the UK’s science and research base and the business community to create more spin-out companies, and to provide a magnet for attracting overseas investors to the UK.’ He also recognises the important role of the UK’s world-leading universities in attracting overseas investors.
In response to the speech, Professor Steve Smith of Universities UK said, ‘Universities understand the constraints on public funding and the need to target scarce resources in the most effective way possible. However, the coalition government is in danger of sending the message that the UK is not a serious player in the field of science and innovation.’
Perhaps Mark Henderson the The Times in his analysis of Cable’s speech (subscription required) summed it up best of all by saying, ‘While it would be nice to think we can achieve more by spending less, a far more probable outcome is that we will end up achieving less with less.’
Russell Group respond to speech saying: ‘Dr Cable has urged UK scientists to ‘do more with less’; they already are. The UK’s leading universities currently punch well above their weight in the international sphere – generally coming second only to the US – but are under-resourced in comparison with their global competitors. Our current 1.3% of GDP investment in higher education is outpaced by the US, Germany, South Korea, Australia, Canada and Japan. Against the odds, with one percent of the world’s population, 12% of scientific citations go to UK-based research.’
Response in full can be read from the link above.