News blog: Is One Nation Science just the latest UK research map?

The launch of Jo Johnson’s One Nation Science strategy has put place firmly on the research policy agenda, says Holly Else

July 22, 2015
Pile of maps

For some time now, the role of geography as an important part of science funding decisions has been creeping into policymakers’ thoughts.

Last year, chancellor George Osborne announced his desire to create a “Northern Powerhouse” by investing in transport and science in cities in the North. He followed this through with a £250 million spend on the Sir Henry Royce Institution for Materials Research and Innovation announced in the Autumn Statement. The institution would be the North’s answer to London’s £700 million Francis Crick Institute of Life Sciences.

The science and innovation strategy, a 10-year plan for growth published last year by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, also emphasised the importance of place in research.

So it is no surprise that Jo Johnson decided to make his One Nation Science speech, which underlined the importance of rebalancing the economy, in the Yorkshire city of Sheffield. In it, he said that almost half of research funding went into the “golden triangle” of Oxford, Cambridge and London and that a new approach was needed to make sure that all areas of the country could reach their full potential in research.

A closer look at the data behind this statistic suggests that the proportion of research funding that has gone into the golden triangle since 1997-98 has increased in line with that of funding for England and the UK as a whole, so it’s not as if these science hot spots are suddenly drawing down money at the expense of other regions.

But when you look at how research council funding is distributed across the country by population, you can see that there are vast differences in investment by area. In London, the South East and the East, spending is about £70 per person, compared with just over £10 per head in Northern Ireland, for example.

Mr Johnson’s plan is to fund excellent research in other parts of the country to help them realise the productivity gains seen in the golden triangle. As part of this, the government will use regional audits of science activity to identify emerging areas of strength.

This will not be the first project to map research strengths. You could argue that the £250 million research excellence framework did exactly this.

In fact, the Higher Education Funding Council for England recently published a series of interactive maps that illustrate research capacity and quality of institution by subject area based on data from the REF and its predecessor, the 2008 research assessment exercise.

Also, in 2013, Sir Andrew Witty’s Independent Review of Universities and Growth, which called for universities to play a bigger role in local economic strategies, produced a series of “heat maps”. These depicted hot spots across the country for research in the eight great technologies and areas of expertise in the high-tech sectors singled out for investment by the government’s Industrial Strategy.

Until we get more flesh on the bones of One Nation Science, it is not clear how the regional audits of science will differ from those already published. But the debate about making research funding decisions based on place is unlikely to go away any time soon.

Some academics have already raised fears about what impact the devolution agenda would have on the quality of UK science.

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