Foresight Saga

March 8, 1996

David Smith and Howard Green worry that Technology Foresight is the missing link.

Jean Jacques Rousseau abandoned his five children to the Hopital des Enfants-trouves, but said: "I know full well no father could have been more tender than I would have been." We are reminded of Rousseau's exotic strain of paternalism when considering the reactions of different arms of Government to the Technology Foresight programme. Let us first rehearse some recent history.

Last spring the Government published the findings of its Technology Foresight steering group. The report, Progress through Partnership, is concerned to increase cooperation between industry and higher education. It therefore links closely to many universities' stated missions. It is worth reproducing some of the recommendations: "We recommend that the higher education funding councils address how the funding allocated to different subject areas (at present largely driven by historical factors) should be adjusted to reflect Foresight findings and the real cost of supporting Foresight priority areas.

"We recommend that the funding councils consider whether the other components of their funding formulae could be better used to reward and encourage academic researchers who take forward Foresight findings, and promote collaboration with industry, between departments and between universities.

"We further recommend that funding councils fully assess the skilled manpower implications of the Foresight analysis."

Clearly, the implications of Technology Foresight are positive, particularly for new universities which have a mission relating applied research to wealth creation for the community as a whole. The steering group's recommendations are unproblematic because they have a tradition of interdisciplinary research, innovative research training schemes (such as teaching companies and part-time research students who link study to work) and an emphasis on applied research.

There is, however, an interesting contrast between the recommendations and the apparent direction of the forthcoming Research Assessment Exercise. If that contrast is real, we believe that there is a grave danger that, as far as funding council cash is concerned, research of the kind urged by the steering group could be stillborn.

There is great tension between a highly desirable set of policies and their non-implementation. Is there any direct evidence that the RAE panels will take Technology Foresight into account during the exercise, as directly recommend by the steering group? If you are submitting to unit 30 (mechanical engineering) or unit 32 (metallurgy), then it is possible that you may be able to conduct funded research of the kind that this country's future requires and that is recommended by the steering group.

The panels for those two units give advice for setting out RAE's as follows: "Responsiveness to national and international priorities and initiatives such as the Technology Foresight Programme" (Unit 30 Panel); "The panel will be concerned to identify the responsiveness of the Department to Technology Foresight" (Unit 32 Panel).

If, however, your unit of assessment is any of the other 68, then Foresight seemingly has made little impact on the panels. Traditional values abound. It is worth asking how many panel members have actually read the relevant Foresight documents or just how serious the Government is about the Technology Foresight imperative. Certainly all the direct evidence is that two different recipients of public monies have two distinct views of the importance of Foresight.

At a recent workshop on Technology Foresight, Ian Freeman, the head of Foresight at the Office of Science and Technology, suggested that universities had three key roles in the Technology Foresight agenda: * Educating and training qualified manpower * Undertaking research and adding to knowledge * Making the knowledge base accessible.

As far as the accessibility of knowledge is concerned, the RAE does little to help. It downgrades, for example, those publications likely to be read by industry and the community at large. Very few academics, let alone business managers, read refereed journals. Those readily accessible forms of communication, through which true dissemination of knowledge can occur, will apparently still count for virtually nothing in the RAE.

So where does this leave new universities, in which so many of the Technology Foresight aspirations fit easily with institutional missions and practice? The answer is: on a very unlevel playing field, playing a very uphill game. In most panels the RAE is stacked against research in new universities, because of panel members' views and historical norms.

To put it kindly, panel memberships are not overwhelmed by younger researchers who might not have traditional or vested ideas. So what are the options? We believe that Technology Foresight gives all universities a real opportunity. It provides them with a platform from which to demonstrate their real strengths and to demonstrate by their research performance that they should be funded to go on making an even greater contribution.

To continue historical norms, however, will surely mean that British research generally will not realise its potential contribution to Technology Foresight. The cost to the wider economic growth of the country cannot be calculated.

"Now I have just got a few more things to say to you," Harold Macmillan told the viewers in a 1955 party election broadcast, "and since I have been busy recently I have made a few notes to help me." He put on his glasses, looked at his notes, then took off his glasses. "Oh yes," he smiled, "Things are getting better. We have got the whole thing in our hands. There is a wonderful future before us." Sound familiar?

David Band is dean of the faculty of business and Howard Green is head of research development at Leeds Metropolitan University.

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