The science of science and innovation policy

Nearly £5 billion of public funding is spent on science and innovation in the UK each year. Despite cuts in other sectors, this level of funding was frozen in the 2010 Spending Review, guaranteeing “flat cash” until 2014. Another one-year Spending Review is due next year, but in the current economic climate, significant changes in spending are unlikely. For science to receive the funding it requires and deserves, its value and impact needs to be evidenced and clearly presented to decision-makers. As highlighted by James Wilsdon, Professor of Science and Democracy at Science and Technology Policy Research Unit (SPRU), at the Policy Lunchbox network, however, more work is needed to strengthen the evidence base for UK science and innovation policy.

James began his talk by comparing the situation in the UK to that of the United States. Across the Atlantic, there have been sustained investments in evaluating science and innovation policies over recent years. This was partly in response to an influential 2005 speech made by John Marburger, then science adviser to George W. Bush, where he said that the “science of science policy needs to grow up.” A ‘Science of Science and Innovation Policy’ programme was initiated in 2006, and has since funded upwards of ninety projects to develop and improve science policy decision-making in the US.

There is no equivalently well-developed programme in the UK. Many organisations, such as the Royal Society, Nesta, the Research Councils, and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, as well as university centres work on aspects of science and innovation policy, but much of this work is domain-specific (on genomics, energy etc.) and there is relatively little independent, system-wide analysis. Also there isn’t enough effort to compare the strengths and weaknesses of the UK system to other national systems, in both developed and emerging economies.

James highlighted that the relatively small amount of academic research carried out in the UK’s science and innovation system can result in policymakers relying very heavily on the few resources that are available. For example, in the lead up to the 2010 Spending Review, Professor Jonathan Haskel’s work on the contribution of science to economic growth was used extensively to defend the core science budget. This was a valuable addition to the arsenal of those fighting for science, but as we look ahead to the next General Election and beyond, we ideally need to broaden and deepen our evidence base.

Funding of science and innovation is relatively secure for the short-term, but more work is required to ensure this continues into the future. Currently, science funding is generally a non-partisan issue, with all political parties taking a similar line. Discussion at the Lunchbox led to the conclusion that in order to both reach a wider audience and for funding budgets to be increased, this consensus might need to change, such that science becomes an issue of more visible public and political debate.

Further research into the science and innovation systems of both the UK and other countries is needed to provide robust evidence for policy and decision-makers with regards to funding allocation and science policy. At a time when government budgets are under huge pressure, greater emphasis on the ‘science of science policy’ within the UK would be timely and valuable.

Policy Lunchbox is a joint initiative between the British Ecological Society and the Biochemical Society. The next Lunchbox will be in April. For more information and past speakers, see the website.