Liberate the labs

April 4, 2003

The UKresearch establishment hobbles its scientists. We must set them free, says Stuart Lyons

Britain's science is in a poor state. This is not because our scientists lack talent - they are among the world's best - but because they are let down by a poor system. The result has been a decline in many aspects of the UK's scientific performance - in numbers of Nobel prizes, in research investment, in citations in published papers and in the ability to train and retain outstanding scientists.

Comparing 1976-2000 with the previous 25 years, the UK's number of science-based Nobel prizes fell by 57 per cent. That of the US rose by 45 per cent. The Department of Trade and Industry, custodian of the nation's science base through the Office of Science and Technology, describes Nobels as "the gold standard for intellectual excellence". If that is the case, Britain is underperforming. Our achievement in winning four awards in 2001 and 2002 compares with nine won by the US in the same period.

A study on the relative citation impact of scientific papers shows Sweden and Switzerland ahead of the UK, with Israel also in front per head of population. The number of researchers per capita in the UK is 50 per cent lower than in Japan, Sweden and Finland. UK research and development expenditure is well down compared with other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

How well does Britain manage its research establishment? How effectively do we harness the scientific genius that is one of our top intellectual assets?

At the centre of Britain's effort are the six grant-awarding research councils. These bodies - responsible for funding research into biotechnology, medicine, the physical sciences, the natural environment, particle physics and astronomy, and the economic and social sciences - support the UK's public research institutions. More than half the research councils' expenditure - about £800 million a year and rising - goes to support researchers and postgraduate trainees in universities.

Evidence of mismanagement abounds. The Medical Research Council has failed to support alpha-rated projects. The Natural Environment Research Council lost control of its finances and summarily cancelled about 50 grants. The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council is so burdened with European programmes that it doubts its ability to maintain university research grants at a reasonable level.

The prime minister's principal advisory body for the sciences, the Council for Science and Technology, has rightly asked for research strategy to be coordinated with focus and accountability.

The process for awarding grants is bedevilled by an outmoded bureaucracy.

The research councils have a plethora of committees, where timeliness is controlled by university semesters. The distinctions between strategy, governance and management are blurred.

Under this government, the Treasury rides high and has commandeered the national science programme. The OST is disenfranchised. Its sponsoring department, the DTI, shows little interest in its responsibility for the UK science base.

The weaknesses in internal and external governance are manifest. In May 2002, the government tried to remedy them by forming an overarching body known as Research Councils UK. Sadly, departmental disagreements resulted in RCUK's having no powers. Far from stimulating a novel and productive dynamic tension, the government created a civil service department in miniature.

RCUK's constitution, governance and terms of reference are flawed. It lacks the authority to deliver change. Its agenda reflects political, rather than scientific, priorities, as epitomised by its "engagement matrix" with the regional development agencies.

Much more efficient is the US National Science Foundation, which is removed from central government bureaucracy. It is governed by an independent chair and directors. It has strong top management, with delegated responsibility and accountability. Its review criteria are simple. Its application and grant processes are almost 100 per cent electronic. It has a broad scientific remit, too, and plays an important role in science education in schools and the wider public.

These strengths are supported by a culture in which research professors talk the language of business. The NSF operates within the framework of a vibrant and competitive research and development economy, in which the transfer of knowledge and intellectual property rights to the commercial sector is managed to greater public benefit.

Britain needs a UK National Science Foundation. Its mission should be to restore leadership, dynamism, focus, prestige and substantive achievement to our lagging scientific establishment, and to enable the best of our research scientists to flourish.

Stuart Lyons is the author of Harnessing our Genius - British Science in the 21st Century, published this week by the Centre for Policy Studies.

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