Grant bids face business test

September 1, 2006

Academics fear plans to judge applications on potential economic impact will stifle innovation, says Mark Rodgers

Academics will have to prove the potential commercial worth of their research to improve their chances of winning funding under radical plans being considered by the research councils.

Under the proposals, experts in "economic importance" would sit alongside academic referees on panels that assess grant applications to score bids in terms of their economic impact.

Wealth creation is already one of the goals of the research councils, which allocate hundreds of millions of pounds for research each year, but proposals are still judged largely on academic merit.

The reforms would for the first time put industrial relevance at the heart of the decision-making process for allocating grants.

The plans were welcomed by business representatives but have horrified researchers, who argue they are unworkable and could kill off the best blue-skies research undertaken in universities.

Tony McBride, policy adviser for the Confederation of British Industry, said: "This will be a useful measure in tipping the balance more towards addressing 'user' needs. It is one practical measure among many we would support."

Philip Ternouth of the Council for Industry and Higher Education said: "In principle, we would roundly applaud the recommendations concerning the evaluation of economic impact."

But Peter Cotgreave, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK, said the proposals would make it difficult for potentially ground-breaking basic research to get funding.

"Putting users on peer-review panels and adding 'usefulness' to the criteria is the worst possible way of increasing the impact of this kind of work, because it would kill it all together," he said.

"Faraday, Watson and Crick, Einstein, Newton and Darwin would all have been refused a grant if a contemporary 'user' had been asked to score their applications, but their work is collectively worth billions of pounds in economic impact."

Janet Lewis, former research director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: "Researchers cannot usually predict what they will find. It is unlikely that 'members expert in identifying work of potential economic importance' would be able to accurately assess the potential impact."

On the eve of the British Association's festival of science, Patrick Dowling, chair of the BA, warned that while it was reasonable to take potential economic significance into account, "the quality of the science should be the primary factor in decision-making".

The recommendations form part of a report drafted by a group of senior academics, industry experts and research council chief executives to Keith O'Nions, the Government's director-general of science and innovation.

The research councils, which allocate four fifths of the Government's Pounds 3.24 billion science budget, have set up a "high-level" group to consider the plans next week. Each council has developed a strategy for increasing the rate of knowledge transfer in response to the Treasury's ten-year investment framework for science.

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