Aim for the stars in science - but don't ask for more money

David Willetts has set out proposals for major multi-national corporations to join forces with a foreign or British university and establish new graduate-only research institutions in the UK.

January 4, 2012

The idea is part of an eight-step action plan to “high-tech growth” set out in a speech today by Mr Willetts, the universities and science minister, who said the government wanted Britain to become the “best place in the world to do science”.

He said the idea for a new university had been partly inspired by an initiative led by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, under which Cornell University is to build a campus on the city’s Roosevelt Island in partnership with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

But Mr Willetts said the proposal, which would not receive any additional funding from government, also tied into the theme of opening up higher education to alternative providers, including foreign universities.

“It is an opportunity to seize the new freedoms which we proposed in our White Paper last year. We already have a lot of interest and we want to move this to the next level.

“As proposals are developed we will be able to identify any specific obstacles that need to be removed including by legislation where necessary,” he told an audience at the Policy Exchange thinktank in London.

He later explained in a briefing to journalists that he wanted the message to go out “internationally” and to “commercial investors” that the government wanted to see more institutions like Cranfield University, the UK’s only wholly postgraduate research university with major links to industries such as aerospace.

“We did have in the White Paper an agenda of making clear that we wanted to break down barriers that stand in the way of new providers if they want to come in and this is further development of that,” he said.

Elsewhere in his speech, Mr Willetts set out an ambition to have more UK universities in the world’s top 100 through “raising our game” in areas like teaching and levering external income into institutions.

He announced that the government wanted knowledge exchange funding from external sources to grow by 10 per cent over the next three years.

Mr Willetts also explained in detail how the government aimed to boost research in key technologies and announced two new “leadership councils” in e-infrastructure and synthetic biology to help aid strategy and increase business involvement.

“These are not instruments for ministers to impose their will on reluctant sectors. Nor are they devices to increase public spending. We act as conveners bringing together the key players and driving forward investment and innovation,” he said.

The minister’s speech was broadly welcomed by the science community.

Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said Mr Willetts was right to set high ambitions given “we're currently way behind nations such as Germany, Japan, and the US in terms of business and industry investment in research”.

Mark Downs, head of the Society of Biology, also welcomed the speech, but urged the government “to continue to look at ways to restore the public funding of science that will otherwise be eroded by inflation over the current spending review period”.

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