Impact policy needs 'more evidence'

Campaign says Treasury must appoint science adviser to articulate strategies, writes Zoë Corbyn

September 10, 2009

The Government-led drive to increase the economic impact of research has been implemented in a "piecemeal" way, with no clear strategy or evidence base.

This is the conclusion of a report by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), which says the policy options for the economic-impact agenda must be better articulated and more fully debated before the next spending review.

The analysis, Impacts of Investment in the Science and Engineering Research Base, calls for the appointment of a chief scientific adviser at the Treasury - one of the few departments still lacking one - to help shape the direction of the policy.

Hilary Leevers, assistant director of CaSE and author of the report, told Times Higher Education there was a dearth of new policies and initiatives based on evidence.

She said: "Initiatives to increase the impact of the research base have been poorly articulated and lacked the evidence necessary to gain the support and confidence of the research community."

She pointed to the debate initiated by Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, at the start of the year to focus academic research in areas aligned with the UK's industrial strengths, which resulted in the research councils reinvesting £106 million in areas supporting "key areas of economic potential".

"This is an example of (the Government) coming up with an idea but not exploring how it worked in the past and whether it could work in the future ... There is not much evidence to show that when it has been previously tried it has been effective at generating growth, and the risks have not been properly weighed against possible gains," she said. "An awful lot of science policy could do with more scientific evidence and an analytic approach."

While stressing that it was reasonable for the Government to look for a return on increased investment, Dr Leevers said there were many difficulties in measuring this, from timescales to intangible gains.

Her report, published this week, is likely to spark debate about how scientists may oversell the economic benefits of their work to win funds.

Dr Leevers said: "The research base can and does drive economic growth ... but in putting so much weight on this, we risk (obscuring) its other really important roles, to train the future workforce, answer questions and provide the capacity to solve the problems that will come in the future."

The report also says that, contrary to common perception, more rather than less is being spent on basic research by the research councils; it recommends that the councils improve the way they communicate this.

It adds that while much of the burden of increasing impact has fallen on researchers, in reality they have only "limited opportunities" to influence the impact of their work.

Lord Drayson said: "This report acknowledges that it is possible to increase the impact of our research while not undermining its base.

"This is something I've been adamant about and which vindicates the Government's approach to supporting science through all its stages."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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