Cash with strings...

November 12, 2004

... is what's on offer to UK science. John Enderby notes that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

The research councils are vying to get the biggest slices of the Government's forthcoming science budget, with the detailed allocations due to be announced shortly.

At such times, the cake may seem too small for everybody's appetites. We should remember, though, that science has done very well - the planned year-on-year rises in funding continue the pattern of university research investment that has been a feature of the present Government.

But university researchers also need to recognise that there are strings attached to the new money. We need to be careful that these do not distort the ultimate quest for knowledge.

The Government wishes, not unreasonably, to see some measurement of the return on its investment in university research.

It set an overall public service agreement, in this year's spending review, to achieve an improvement in "the relative international performance of the UK research base and increase the overall innovation performance of the UK economy".

In effect, this means closing the gap with the US at the top of the world research league table and staying ahead of other countries trying to overtake the UK.

But there are many potential dangers in deciding how progress towards this target should be measured, and over what timescale improvement might be expected.

The Office of Science and Technology is investigating the use of metrics, such as citation rates for scientific papers, as a way of working out exactly how university research is contributing towards the public service agreement.

But there may be a considerable delay between the decision to fund a piece of research and the publication of the resultant journal paper, and still more time required before its impact through citations can be counted properly.

And, anyway, such metrics are only proxies for the value of the research, which cannot be easily measured.

Worse still, such metrics might be given so much prominence as performance indicators that researchers focus on maximising their scores rather than on advancing knowledge in their disciplines.

This could even lead to the kind of game-playing that is one of the main drawbacks of the research assessment exercise. It is vital, therefore, that the performance indicators and targets attached to new money are applied with a proper appreciation of their strengths and limitations, and in a fully transparent way.

Ultimately, the scientific community needs to agree with the Government how research performance is best measured. Universities and the Government share responsibility for ensuring that high-quality, meaningful information is collected and properly assessed so that it can inform funding strategies.

Information about progress towards targets must be used very carefully in any decision about the funding of future research priorities.

The Government should resist the temptation to back only research that appears to guarantee a quick return on the investment, or to pull the plug on projects whose worth cannot be gauged immediately. Research can produce long-term benefits, but only if it is properly nurtured.

The Government certainly recognises the long-term value of research, as signified through its ten-year investment framework. But it is worth noting that most of the increased money for science from the spending review settlement appears earmarked for specific purposes.

This might mean that the Government is trying to choose in advance which areas of research are most likely to yield the biggest dividends.

Unfortunately, there is no crystal ball in which the research successes of tomorrow can be viewed today.

The scientific community must recognise that when the Government invests its money in research rather than other priorities, strings will be attached. We cannot expect higher levels of funding without being willing to demonstrate how much this ultimately benefits the population, in terms of increased prosperity and improvements in the quality of life.

But, equally, the Government should learn to choose the right strings.

The full worth of research may not be achieved within a period that matches immediate political priorities. And the Government must be careful about how it measures the payoff from its significant investment in science.

Sir John Enderby is vice-president of the Royal Society.

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