Goodbye blue skies?

August 10, 2007

Plans to award research grants on the basis of 'economic impact' are sparking widespread anxiety, reports Melanie Newman

Concerns that academics may not win research grants unless they can demonstrate the future commercial benefits of their work have intensified.

Ian Pearson, the Science Minister, told The Times Higher this week that he expected the seven research councils to continue the drive to improve the "economic impact" of the research projects that they fund. This comes as the Government finalises the councils' multibillion-pound budgets, due in October's Comprehensive Spending Review, and as the councils prepare to hand the Government detailed plans to ensure that research has greater financial returns.

Mr Pearson said: "We will make sure that at a strategic level they (the research councils) are making the right decisions. I want to see more economic benefit from the research base."

Although the research councils and Mr Pearson all stressed that they did not want to stifle creativity, leading academics warned this week that a focus on economic goals could stifle landmark breakthroughs where the long-term benefits are impossible to predict.

The seven research councils, which hand out £2.8 billion for research each year across all fields, have already confirmed a shake-up of the peer review process for deciding which grants to fund, although details are still vague.

Through Research Councils UK, they said in June that they would "increase the level of input to peer review from the users of research" and would "revise" the guidance issued to peer reviewers and to academics applying for grants "to emphasise the importance of the impact of research".

Colin Blakemore, the outgoing chief executive of the Medical Research Council, told The Times Higher : "The RCUK accepts the logic of assessing the economic impact of proposals and is vigorously pursuing this agenda."

Dennis Noble, emeritus professor of cardiovascular physiology at Oxford University, said it could typically be 30 years before a discovery's potential is realised, so focusing too narrowly on immediate impact could inhibit breakthroughs.

Sir Philip Cohen, a Royal Society research professor at Dundee University, said "the UK would miss an awful lot of stuff" if it focused on short-term impact. Ian Leslie, pro vice-chancellor for research at Cambridge University, said impact "must not become a criterion in every case".

Peter Cotgreave, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said: "In 3,000 years of human endeavour, nobody has come up with a system that can reliably predict the impact of discovery. The only way is to fund the best science."

Ian Diamond, chairman of RCUK, told The Times Higher that researchers would face a "double hurdle" - having both to show high-quality proposals and to impress research "end users" in the review process. But he retracted the reference to a double hurdle and insisted: "We're very clear that without absolute quality, research will not be funded." </a>


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