A vision of blue skies shining on 'clusters'

Willetts backs curiosity and diversity, and rejects 'sausage-machine' approach, Paul Jump writes

May 27, 2010

The importance of blue-skies research, the science ring fence and even so-called "Mickey Mouse" degrees was underlined by David Willetts in his first week of engagements as universities and science minister.

The events included Mr Willetts' maiden keynote speech, held at the University of Birmingham.

In a well-received address, he said he supported a multi-year science ring fence, reiterated his scepticism about plans to measure and reward "impact" in the research excellence framework, and emphasised the importance of "curiosity-driven research".

He also pledged to protect universities' autonomy and repeated previous hints that he may favour greater private provision, as well as more "applied" degrees such as golf-course management, within a diverse higher education offering.

At another engagement last week, Mr Willetts indicated that developing "clusters" of academic and business expertise would be considered a "high priority" by the coalition government.

He was appearing at a Royal Society event in London alongside Dame Janet Finch, vice-chancellor of Keele University, who said that more collaboration was needed if the UK was to compete with emerging giants such as China and India.

The minister told the summit that as a model for innovation he preferred the idea of clusters such as science parks, which provided a "low-risk environment for high-risk activity", to a "sausage-machine" model that focused too narrowly on inputs and outputs.

He said he had been struck by the emerging consensus from recent reports by Sir James Dyson and Hermann Hauser that more technology innovation centres were needed.

"This suggests there is a case that has to be carefully examined and it will be a high priority for me," Mr Willetts said.

"But there is a worry about money and a worry about people saying we don't want elaborate new institutional arrangements."

A recurring theme of the summit was the fear that huge investment in science by large developing countries could leave the UK behind. Professor Finch said that larger "critical masses" of researchers working in small areas would be necessary.

"The competitive research environment has served us very well, but we need to balance it with incentives to collaborate," she said.

"This will have more impact than the debate about where the government allocates UK funding."

Martin Taylor, who chaired the Royal Society advisory group report The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity, and who is professor of mathematics at the University of Manchester, called for greater stability in science policy and funding.

He said a 15-year government strategy was the best option.

Mr Willetts said he understood the need for stability and looked forward to hearing the recommendations of Lord Browne's review of university fees and funding.

He also welcomed Prime Minister David Cameron's decision to combine the science and higher education briefs because previously it had been easy for one minister to "dump" problems on to the other.

"Now it is clear where the buck stops," he said.


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