In a major speech on science, research and innovation, the business secretary today warned that the impending cuts in government spending – the deepest since postwar demobilisation in the 1940s – mean the academy must “achieve more with less”.
“My preference is to ration research funding by excellence: essentially, we back the research teams that are of international quality,” Mr Cable said.
“The corollary of that is that we screen out mediocrity,” he added, “regardless” of where it is found – though that “is the jobs of the research councils and funding councils, rather than mine”.
He told his audience at the Queen Mary Bioscience Innovation Centre in London that in the final research assessment exercise in 2008, 54 per cent of submitted work was judged to be world class.
“That is clearly the area on which funding should be concentrated,” Mr Cable said.
He added: “I do support top-class blue-skies research as well as commercially relevant research. But there is no justification for public money being used to support research that is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding.”
The approach should not be simplistic, Mr Cable said, noting the need to support “new, unknown, bright people” and reduce the time researchers spend on applications.
On the commercialisation of research, he said, the UK had a strong record but needed to do more.
“This involves building stronger links between the UK’s science and research base and the business community – to create more spin-out companies and to provide a magnet for attracting overseas investors to the UK,” he explained.
Mr Cable said the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which administers higher education and science, is the “largest department in Whitehall whose budget is not protected”.
The Labour government had planned for cuts of “20 to 25 per cent in the budget of that department”, he said.
Mr Cable, a critic of the Conservative policy to cap immigration from non-European Union countries, said he recognised the special interests of science and research in the movement of staff.
He told a questioner that he had “spoken up as strongly as I can on the issue of the non-EU immigration cap as is consistent with Cabinet responsibility”.