REF to be delayed by one year

David Willetts, Minister for Science and Universities, today delivered his first major speech on the Government’s vision for science in the UK, the Royal Institution. The BES listened as the Minister outlined his priorities for science, and announced a one year delay to the Research Excellence Framework to allow HEFCE to better assess the results of the ‘impact’ pilot exercise.

The Minister began by highlighting that 2010 had so far seen a ‘great summer for science’, with the Royal Society’s hiigh profile ‘See Further’ festival, Lord Rees’ delivery of the Reith Lectures and BBC programming such as Prof. Brian Cox’s ‘Wonders of the Solar System’. He then went on to reiterate his commitment to the dual support system for universities and the Haldane Principle – that decisions about where to allocate research spend are made at arms-length from governments. He recognised the argument that many in the scientific community, including CaSE, have made; that other countries have responded to the recession by increasing their spend on science, as a pathway to growth, but stated that these countries’ deficits were less than that of the UK. He stressed however that Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and Chancellor George Osborne both understood the value of science to re-balancing the economy.

The Minister said that the coalition government had so far ‘been good’ for science; with Professor Sir John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Advisor, updating guidelines on the use of evidence in policy-making, and the new principles on the treatment of independent scientific advice now referred to in the Ministerial Code. However, not unexpectedly, he could not give a commitment to levels of funding which science and HE will receive into the future: this is an announcment which must wait until the Comprehensive Spending Review later this year.

The second part of the Minister’s speech focused on the economic case for investing in science, before moving on to outline his priorities for science in the coming months and years. Public spend on science has to stand up to public scrutiny, the Minister said, and although sceptical of the ‘impact agenda’ as currently framed, the Minister sees a need to demonstrate and measure the impact of research – on the economy, policy or society. A researcher cannot see publishing a certain number of papers in a particular peer-reviewed journal as their only measure of success, or impact, he stressed later during Q and A. Hence the delay of the REF for a year, to allow assessment of the impact pilot but also to learn from schemes being developed in the USA. The Society of Biology welcomed the delay during the Q and A session.

The Minister outlined his support for ‘clusters’, which he described as ‘low risk environments for high risk’ endeavours, singling out Dundee and the computer games development industry ‘clustering’ around Abertay University. He criticised the commonly voiced notion that the ‘British invent but fail to capitalise on’ discoveries. Instead, he said, the UK has demonstrated its capacity to capitalise on the research which happens elsewhere. Science investment matters, he said, partly because it increases the absorptive capacity of the UK: our ability to apply science here and as such reap rewards for our economy.

Transparency on the part of scientists, with greater sharing of data, was also highlighted as vital, and the Minister also commented that he had raised the importance of libel law reform with the Ministry of Justice: an importance which had been recognised.

Finally, the Minister outlined three priorities for his portfolio, which will form the focus of policy:
1) Investing in shared research facilities (research platforms)
2) Government playing a greater role in procurement (for example, to support small and medium sized enterprises – SMEs)
3) Public competitions for new technologies.

On this last point, the Minister singled out the X Prize Foundation for supporting the development of sub-orbital space flight. The Government might not set the prize – this could be driven by the marketplace.

Overall, the Minister seemed genuinely committed to the importance of science and technology. He recognises the worth of science and the importance of evidence-based policy. Yet, it seemed clear too that the case for investment in science still needs to be made to the Treasury. The Minister was pragmatic, stating throughout that cuts will be necessary and at one point that the challenge is to demonstrate ‘hard headed economic returns’ to enable maintenance of basic science.