Making the Most of the Research Base and the Science Settlement

The BES Policy Team this lunchtime attended the last of this year’s Policy Net events, organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering. Prof. Brian Collins, Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills; Prof. Richard Friend from the University of Cambridge and one other panellist, a social scientist, joined the audience to discuss ‘The new knowledge economy – making the most of the research base’. Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre, took the chair.

Each panellist was given five minutes to introduce their views, before Fiona Fox facilitated a dicussion between them and then invited questions from the audience. As the event was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, it isn’t possible to attribute comments to particular panellists and audience members.

Interesting points were made regarding the need for Government to recognise the importance of investing in people when deciding how to allocate the science budget.Undergraduates need to be offered the right environment so that they want to stay in research, developing a career in universities, manufacturing or research-related industries. The UK cannot afford to allow the brightest and best science and engineering undergraduates to move into banking, for example, if it wants to remain at the forefront of science and innovation.

A questioner asked why the UK was traditionally poor at capitalising on the research base, translating this into economic growth, technology and manufacturing. One panellist made a very interesting point about how this deficit could be addressed. Giving the example of two competitng companies, he hypothesised that if one company hit upon an innovation that gave them a competitive advantage, their rival company would need to begin to use this process too, in order to keep up. However, he suggested, staff at the company could object and refuse to work – placing the company in a ‘Catch-22’ situation. The solution he said, and here he applied this to universities, was to develop a structure which could be ‘bolted on’, a new unit consisting of new people, with different skills, who would be best able to capitalise upon this development. In the context of universities this could include a number of entrepreneurial academics. Another panellist suggested that an analysis could be conducted into barriers to UK companies, those with a limited research base, capitalising on Government-funded research.

A point of contention concerned collaboration and competition between universities. One panellist suggested that the Comprehensive Spending Review and science budget settlement would by necessity lead to greater collaboration between universities, whist a second panellist suggested that competition was fundamental in allowing younger researchers to establish their careers, as it would result in displacement of more established academics. A comment from the floor suggested that proposals around Higher Education Funding, with universities entering a ‘market place’, driven by student choice and attitudes to fees, would engender competition between universities, with collaboration simultaneously required, causing real tensions. In response, a panellist commented that many businesses find themselves in a similar position and that universities must adapt to this mix of collaboration and competition, or fail.

The scientific community will be required to communicate clearly to Government and to taxpayers over the coming months and years regarding the returns on investment which science and technology has delivered. The panel suggested that ‘telling stories’ and using case-studies would be valuable, as would Learned Societies providing fora for discussion between Government, academia and industry. Policy Net attendees were left with the sense that both challenges and opportunities lie ahead in 2011.