Excellence with Impact

Yesterday afternoon the BES attended a workshop organised by Research Councils UK (RCUK) aimed at exploring how Learned Societies and Research Councils can better work together to convince Government and wider society about the importance of sustained investment in science and technology. Over 120 representatives from Learned Societies, the majority from the arts and humanities sector, met at the Royal Society in London to begin dialogue.

Presentations at the start of the afternoon emphasised the strength of the UK research base. For example, the UK has 1% of the world’s population but 14% of the world’s most highly cited academic publications. We punch well above our weight in terms of academic excellence: the UK is first amongst the G8 group of nations in terms of publication productivity. Yet, said Prof. Alan Thorpe, Chair of RCUK, we are living in extraordinary times. Wednesday’s pre-budget report emphasised that research funding is not safe from cuts and the research community must do all it can to make the case for investment in science and technology going into the next election and the comprehensive spending review. Chancellor Alastair Darling announced that £600 million is to be cut from research funding, in areas not related to student support, in 2012/13. It’s not yet clear whether this will be a cut to the budgets of the Research Councils directly, or a reduction in ‘QR’ (Quality Related) funding distributed to universities by the Higher Education Funding Councils. Although representing only 4-5% of the budget for research in the UK. this nevertheless signals the importance of Learned Societies and others making the case to government.

Over the course of the afternoon it became clear that the arts and humanities sector is extremely concerned about the shift towards measures of ‘impact’ by the Research Councils and in the Research Excellence Framework; conversation in the break out groups and during the tea and coffee breaks was largely dominated by this. Some suggestions were made to the sector in the report-back session: to demonstrate impact in terms of natural heritage for example. The STEM sector perhaps has less to worry about in relation to demonstrating impact, and yet big questions remain over how impact can be attributed, tracked and measured with any accuracy. RCUK urged participants to watch carefully the progress of the HEFCE impact pilot exercise.

To sum up the session, Prof. Thorpe urged Learned Societies to engage with RCUK in moving forwards; sending case studies demonstrating the impact of research to the Research Councils, engaging with local MPs – offering site visits for example – and communicating research excellence to the public.

It was clear to me that many of the arts and humanities Learned Societies represented around the room were extremely small, lacking a staff base and the policy resources which societies in the STEM sector, like the BES, have. Certainly for them, engaging with RCUK offers a route to communicate the impact of their research to policy-makers. The British Academy also has a new Policy Unit which can help in this respect. The STEM sector in contrast is well-served by bodies such as the Society of Biology and Campaign for Science and Engineering, which can help smaller organisations in the biosciences to communicate with a single voice, stressing the importance of sustained investment in science and technology as a way out of recession.