Excellent science is 'linked to local economy'

Hefce expert says that funding excellence can go hand in hand with focussing resources on particular locations

July 10, 2015
Map of the north of England

The myth that there is a trade-off between excellence and location in science funding needs to be debunked, according to a funding council adviser on local economic growth.

Kevin Richardson, local growth expert adviser for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said that arguing that one is “completely distinct from the other is completely wrong”.

He added that research always takes place in a location and will have an impact on the local economy.

Mr Richardson initially made the comments at a Westminster Higher Education Forum on 7 July about the role of universities in local growth before elaborating on them in an interview with Times Higher Education.

There has been an increased focus on the impact of place in science funding decisions after the Chancellor George Osborne announced his desire to create a “Northern Powerhouse” by investing in transport and science in cities in the north of the country.

In the 2014 Autumn Statement he announced that £250 million of capital spending would be invested in the Sir Henry Royce Institution for Materials Research and Innovation to create the North’s answer to London’s £700 million Francis Crick Institute of Life Sciences.

The science and innovation strategy, a 10-year plan for growth published last year by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, also emphasised the importance of place in research. This has led some to speculate whether putting an emphasis on the location of funding could compromise excellence.

But Mr Richardson asked: “Why is it a trade-off...Is there evidence to back it up or is it a cultural misconception?”

“Institutions, individual academics and research teams who are quite rightly focused on delivering world leading research…because they are doing it in a place, they are indirectly, without doing or thinking about it, having an impact on the local economy,” he said.

“So arguing that one is completely distinct from the other is completely wrong,” he added.

But Graeme Reid, professor of science and research policy at University College London, said that it was not known how the government’ devolution agenda would impact science.

Speaking at an earlier Westminster Higher Education Forum on 30 June, he said that he thought the Chancellor’s plan to create a Northern Powerhouse was a “good idea”. But added that it would not “make any sense at all” to see excellence-based science funding diverted into a geographical agenda.

“We have 1 per cent of the world’s population and 1 in 6 of the world’s highly cited papers. That anomalously high performance is made possible by a meritocratic funding system that funds excellence and nothing else,” he said at the event.

“I would go down a different route entirely where I would build scientific power through a separate funding scheme and achieve scientific power on a wider geographic distribution that can then bid on the same terms as anybody else for meritocratic funding,” he said.

He added that it was “not at all clear” how funding decisions would be made in a decentralised environment.

holly.else@tesglobal.com

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