Leader: Pursuit of truth is paramount...

August 10, 2007

When Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, announced a £1 billion three year boost for science in 2004, the news was met with delight. With flattery getting him everywhere, he confirmed that he had "chosen science and technology above many other spending priorities". There would be a real-terms annual increase in the science budget of 5.8 per cent a year and spending on science as a proportion of national income would rise from 1.9 per cent to 2.5 per cent by 2014, he promised.

But as ever with Mr Brown, the largesse has strings. In return for the cash, universities "must" ensure that they translate research findings "more effectively into business". The research councils should tailor their programmes more closely to the needs of business and other "end users". It was a quid pro quo few could argue with. Universities are rightly at the heart of this agenda, striving to improve the exploitation of their ideas and increase "knowledge transfer" to businesses.

Mr Brown is now Prime Minister, the next spending review is due in October and the research councils are still bending over backwards to show they are meeting the "economic impact" agenda.

But alarm bells are ringing. Universities are not only about being the "bedrock of our economic future", as Mr Brown said. They are about the simple pursuit of truth, the quest for knowledge for its own sake. Such endeavour has proved it can produce work of tremendous impact - social, cultural and economic - as well as research that has hit a dead end and come to little. That is how it should be.

Research Councils UK's 2006 proposals to ensure that potential economic impact is central to peer reviewers' decisions on who should and should not be given research grants met with strong criticism from universities as they appeared to fly in the face of these tenets of higher education. But despite these concerns, the research councils appear to be pressing ahead.

RCUK has confirmed that it will change the peer review process to ensure greater influence for "end users" and greater consideration for potential impact. Detail of how this translates in practice should emerge next month.

But it is essential that money continues to be spent on curiosity-driven research. As the Campaign for Science and Engineering has repeatedly pointed out, Faraday, Watson and Crick, Einstein, Newton and Darwin could well have been refused research grants in today's climate.

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