Conservatives propose research shake-up

September 28, 2007

Sweeping reforms of UK research funding, which would see the Arts and Humanities Research Council brought under central government control and mergers between other research councils, have been proposed in a policy review by the Conservative Party.

The recommendations come from a final report delivered last week by Opposition leader David Cameron's science task force, which was set up to work out how to better capture the UK's potential for science and engi-neering.

Chaired by the MP and former Science Minister Ian Taylor, the group has also recommended reforms to Whitehall structures that would largely undo changes introduced in the spring by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The group has proposed a new Department for Science and Innovation and a new Department for Education, which would see responsibility for universities and schools brought back under the same Cabinet portfolio, after Mr Brown separated them.

A new Innovative Products Agency would also be set up with a £1 billion budget to fund the commercialisation of research.

Mr Taylor said the Government was not taking science and innovation seriously enough. "We need to raise the status of applied research in Britain to that of basic research," he told The Times Higher.

On the AHRC, Taylor said it sat "uncomfortably" with the other science-focused research councils. He said moving it to a department would not downgrade the status of the research.

But Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, labelled the idea a "gross mistake". "The one area we constantly miss out is the whole area of arts and humanities research underpinning science and technology research," he said.

Mr Taylor said that he expected resistance from the five science and technology research councils to any mergers but the task force had been so convinced that a multidisciplinary approach was the way forward that it needed to be looked at more closely. "We are not saying exactly how [we would do it], but we are proposing a detailed consultation," he said.

The task force proposes that the research assessment exercise should give greater weight to applied research and commercialisation activities.

zoe.corbyn@thes.co.uk

KEY TORY RECOMMENDATIONS

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Stem) Task Force proposals

Create an Innovative Products Agency

Stimulate UK R&D investment

Raise school performance in Stem subjects; include science labs in primary schools; rationalise number of A-level subjects

Enable more UK universities to be world class; adjust funding formula for Stem to fully cover teaching costs; assess academic pay; recognise the value of commercial exploitation in academic appointments; give more weight to applied research in research assessment exercise

Improve the UK's global science and technology position

Raise the status of Stem in Britain; rationalise 3,000 Stem-enhancement activities; ensure senior-level civil servants are scientifically literate; reward public engagement in RAE

Tackle culture of risk aversity

New Department of Science and Innovation, and Department for Education; merge residual roles of Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform; reduce number of Stem-related research councils; Arts and Humanities Research Council to come under revised Department for Education.

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