Academics warn against policy of 'picking winners' to fund

February 12, 2009

Science Minister Lord Drayson's proposals to narrow the UK's basic research effort to concentrate on areas that are most likely to boost the economy have met with strong resistance from academics.

A number of organisations cautioned against a policy of "picking winners" to fund, and argued that it could put the UK at a disadvantage in the future by leaving it ill prepared to develop new innovations and respond to future challenges.

Speaking at the Foundation for Science and Technology in London last week, Lord Drayson reiterated his call for a debate on whether the UK should concentrate research in certain areas, such as life sciences, at the expense of other fields, to provide an economic payoff.

The last science budget saw medical research rewarded at the expense of physics and the humanities, but some have interpreted Lord Drayson's latest comments - first raised with MPs on the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee last month - as a signal of a much wider, and more alarming, policy shift.

"By the way he is talking it seems more of a radical step than which areas get a bit more funding than others," Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), told Times Higher Education.

He said: "This is basically Lord Drayson trying to figure out how the science policy fits in with an industrial policy (which the UK does not currently have)."

Two questions frame the debate, he said. The first was whether the UK should venture into the territory of "picking winners" in research fields, which he said CaSE opposed.

The second was how could anyone pick out what the areas of growth were going to be over the next 20 years.

"We are worried about the possibility of narrowing the country's focus," he said.

"Our breadth of (research) expertise gives us a competitive advantage now and in the future ... (but by) trying to predict those areas we will be losing out on potentially new and innovative developments."

Keeping a broad research base would also help the UK to solve its future problems, he said.

"We don't know what the next set of issues we'll have to face will be," he said.

Caution was also voiced by the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: "It is almost impossible to pick winners in basic research ... The risk is that you could miss out on things that could crop up through serendipity."

Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, said: "At the academic level it is in our interests to support real excellence right across the board."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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