Leader: Pitfalls of the quick win

November 12, 2004

It is difficult to argue with the principle behind the Treasury's proposals for closer monitoring of research funding. The Chancellor has boosted the science budget by billions of pounds and he wants accountability. The mantra of "something for something" has been a consistent demand wherever Labour has invested. But principles should be applied only where it is sensible to do so. In this case, the chosen system would not only be ineffective, but in all likelihood counterproductive.

University research - particularly but not exclusively of the blue-skies variety - is a long-term investment. The same is true of higher education in general, but in most research projects there is no possibility of instant results, let alone profit. When the research councils allocate grants, they are looking years ahead - well beyond the political horizon of even the most optimistic chancellor. Politicians' patience will be sorely tested by the glacial rate of change emerging in the proposed quarterly checks. The inevitable result will be a scramble for the notorious "quick wins" that ministers like so much.

The research assessment exercise has already imposed an artificial time frame that can distort promising projects; the Treasury plans may be an even stronger disincentive to long-term funding. Speculative projects, that have led to some spectacular advances in science and technology, would be increasingly difficult to justify. That there will be closer monitoring of research is not in doubt; the challenge for the research councils is to come up with modifications that will meet the need for accountability without stifling creativity. It is not an easy task.

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