Backing for appliance of science to UK strengths

February 26, 2009

The Government will push ahead with its controversial plan to align research funding with the UK's future industrial strengths.

The plan could see funding concentrated on fields that are considered useful to the economy, while other areas may receive less money.

The proposal, put forward last month by Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, was backed by John Denham, the Universities Secretary, in a speech at the Royal Academy of Engineering last week. In the speech he said the question was no longer "whether" to choose which areas to back but "how" to choose them.

He reiterated this in an interview with Times Higher Education. Mr Denham said that UK research funding should "focus on those areas where there are significant growth opportunities over the next 20 years; where the UK has a realistic prospect of being a world leader; and where we have a clear competitive advantage".

All countries have "finite budgets", so "choices have to be made", he said. "We need to ensure that the research base is able to make its full contribution to this country's future prosperity."

Mr Denham told Times Higher Education that it would be "wrong" to pre-judge the areas designated for concentration. He said he intended to hand the issue over to the research councils to initiate discussions with the Technology Strategy Board, industry and researchers.

He indicated that the outcome of these discussions would inform the next Comprehensive Spending Review, although changes could take longer because there were commitments to long-term research programmes that must be honoured.

John Armitt, chairman of the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, backed the approach.

He said: "We can't give a little bit to everybody, that would be a derogation of duty. We have got to make hard choices."

But Mr Armitt warned that "process" could be the "enemy" of achieving anything. "The rest of the world is getting on with it, and we are sitting there having intellectual debates," he said.

Evan Harris, Science and Innovation Spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "If the Government wants political consensus, let alone scientific support, for this radical policy, it needs to consult properly ... and set out the justification for it.

"Ministers are wrong to assume that this will be welcomed by science or industry without a more open acknowledgement of who the losers will be, how the change would be managed, what the timescale is and what the implications are for universities and international collaborations."

Mr Denham emphasised the need for continued support for blue-skies research, which could have future economic or social benefits that could not be predicted.

But he criticised recent suggestions from researchers that they should refuse in principle to describe the relevance of their research.

"It can't be right to expect billions of pounds of funding and then systematically deny the taxpayer any insight into its potential applications to the economy, public policy or popular understanding," he said.

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