Funders to 'collaborate'

December 7, 2001

The research councils should be "capable of operating as a 'virtual single council'" whose boundaries are invisible to the people they work with.

This is the message of the quinquennial review of the research councils, published this week. The councils will not be restructured, but the review recommended creating a high-level strategy group comprising research council chief executives, including heads of the Arts and Humanities Research Board and the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, and their director general, to be known as Research Councils UK Strategy Group or RCSG.

Recommendations include:

* The creation of a funders forum involving the RCSG, funding councils, government departments and research charities

* Strategic-level dialogue with stakeholders, including universities, businesses, other research funders and the public

* Greater emphasis from the councils on quality of postgraduate training and postdoctoral career support

* A ten to 15-year rolling road map of future priorities including international partnerships

* Convergence of research-council procedures in external dealings and in decision-making.

Trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt, who announced the recommendations, said: "A stronger strategic framework, shared vision and improved links between science's key players will offer the prospect of even better value from our major science investments."

Pressure group Save British Science said the review overlooked the central role of the councils as funders of innovative, world-class science and engineering research, although it welcomed the Funders' Forum.

Universities UK chief executive Baroness Warwick said: "Our universities' ability to continue to deliver world-class research is conditional on their acute funding needs being met."

In its submission to the Spending Review 2002, UUK argued for £4.38 billion of additional funding to address accumulated and recurrent research funding gaps.

A spokesman for the Higher Education Funding Council said: "We support activities which encourage collaboration among the principal funders of research, particularly where this will lead to a more strategic approach to supporting research in the HE sector."

The research councils will work with the Department of Trade and Industry to implement the recommendations. Progress will be reviewed in two years by the Office of Science and Technology.

* A separate review has decided to restructure the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils to include a wholly owned commercial company. The CLRC will also take on a strategic role, planning future facilities, advising government and becoming a central hub for shared research council needs.

John Wood, chief executive of the CLRC, said that the proposals had been approved by the Office of Science and Technology and would be published in the laboratory's own quinquennial review.

The laboratory will retain its research-council status, able to receive government money to fund facilities. But it will also operate a company to enable it to exploit its intellectual property and skills resource, to create spinoffs and offer consultancy and IT services.

Heads of the five research councils will sit on the council of the laboratory in a strategic partnership.

* Academics must keep sight of their research and teaching responsibilities if asked to give evidence to government scientific advisory committees.

The science and technology select committee's report The Scientific Advisory System says academics are being put off giving advice to government because the RAE and teaching quality assessment do not recognise such work.

The government said it was not desirable to reward those who give advice "if this means diluting the primary purposes of these exercises, which is to assess the quality of research and teaching".

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