EPSRC chief questions Government's funding stance

BIS agenda could direct more cash to agency that supports business innovation, writes Zoë Corbyn

July 2, 2009

The head of a research council has warned that the Government may seek to channel a larger proportion of the science budget into the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

At a conference in London, David Delpy, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, told an audience of senior university research managers that there was a "significant risk" that ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) could direct more public funding to the board that supports business innovation.

The Government has recently put responsibility for higher education in the same department as business.

Professor Delpy also questioned the agenda set by Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, that the UK should focus its research efforts on areas in which it is internationally competitive and where there are real industrial or financial benefits.

"I am quite happy to step up to that agenda from the EPSRC's point of view ... but how much more concentrated and focused should we be?" he asked.

Inside the ring-fence

Professor Delpy told delegates at the third annual UK research conference sponsored by Policy Review Magazine and the 1994 Group: "Although the current ring-fence around science is reasonably secure, you have to remember that the TSB is inside it.

"I think there is a significant risk of BIS ... tying up a greater proportion of research council activity (in the TSB)."

The TSB has been charged with acting as the research council for industry and was awarded a £1 billion budget to cover the current Comprehensive Spending Review period, which lasts until 2011.

This includes £120 million of research council funding, which it dispenses to academics who collaborate with industry.

In the Budget in March, the board was also awarded an extra £50 million from the Government's new £750 million Strategic Investment Fund to support the development of emerging technologies and sectors.

The worry, Professor Delpy said, was that on the back of this, the research councils might be asked to commit more of their funding to the TSB, although he added that he had been reassured by Lord Mandelson's stated commitment to basic research.

"I hope I am proved wrong, but it is a significant risk," he said, adding that the research councils did not have enough money to fund all the high-quality applications they received as it is.

He said the TSB's focus on "current priorities" meant there was a "potential danger" that the UK would be "missing out on opportunities by not looking really far ahead".

"Cutting the budget we have available (by channelling more to the TSB's coffers) would act detrimentally to the UK as a whole and would certainly speed the drying-up of that long-term pipeline that eventually feeds into products and research that the TSB should rightly be funding," he said.

Professor Delpy added that the research councils had been asked to prepare for a 5 per cent budget cut, although he speculated that a figure of between 5 per cent and 10 per cent was more likely.

He speculated that the money saved could be redirected to the TSB by the Government, thereby preserving the science ring-fence.

He said the consequences of redirecting money would be "more dire" for councils other than the EPSRC, because it already worked closely with industry.

A spokesman for BIS said that funding for the TSB fell outside the science ring-fence and that there were "no plans" to change this.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

POCKET PASSIONS

Senior university managers can normally be expected to speak in a calm, reasoned way, at least in public.

Yet so emotive is the issue of the future of the research "pockets of excellence" in teaching-led universities that Nicholas Petford, pro vice-chancellor at Bournemouth University, admitted to becoming "quite emotional" following suggestions that the cash should be redirected to the research elite.

Speaking at the conference sponsored by Policy Review Magazine and the 1994 Group in London, Chris Higgins, vice-chancellor of Durham University, argued that the research excellence framework, which is to replace the research assessment exercise, should introduce thresholds for the size of departments that can compete for funding.

He said this was necessary to stop cash leaking away from the research elite.

"We should try to avoid the dilution effect," he said. "We have got to have critical mass ...

"We should be able to make the REF work as long as we don't get hung up about complete fairness and little bits of money."

Professor Petford responded: "Pockets ... have done so much on so little. Pulling yourselves up by your boot straps is really an impressive thing.

"It is quite hurtful to think that individuals are having discussions about taking away the money we earned."

He then admitted that he had become "quite emotional" and needed to "rephrase" what he had said more diplomatically, leaving Professor Higgins to argue that pockets, which he conceded had done "some brilliant research", should go without because funding was "not a reward" but an "investment for the future".

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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