New quango is not right formula for UK science

April 4, 2003

The idea of a UK Science Foundation, floated this week by the Centre for Policy Studies, a group closely linked to the Conservative Party, is an adventurous one. Like their 2001 general election manifesto plan to pay universities to leave state control, it shows that Tories still want to reduce the role of central government in academic life.

But while the endowment scheme was derided for its potential cost, the centre's plan for UK science is more likely to be written off for its timidity. It envisages a reorganisation based on the US, whose National Science Foundation is a formidable research machine with big budgets, political clout and perceived independence. By contrast, the UK has six - soon to be seven - much smaller research councils that, the centre claims, are undermanaged and driven by political pressure. The Treasury, it says, is in charge. Research Councils UK, the system set up to encourage joint working among the research councils, is a flop, and the Office of Science and Technology, which is supposed to control the councils, is politically feeble.

Even if all these claims were correct, their logic does not point to a new quango, a Railtrack for UK science, to replace RCUK and the OST. Instead, it suggests the need for a single research council with full control of the money and the scientific agenda. This would mean primary legislation. Given the allies that some research councils have - such as the supporters of the Medical Research Council at the top level of the medical establishment - this would make lively politics.

The proposed UK Science Foundation would fail to solve the Centre for Policy Studies's biggest worry, that research councils are driven by the latest bright idea to strike the Treasury rather than by long-term need.

Even with its extra size and influence, the new body would still have to convince the Treasury of its case for public funds, as do other organisations ranging from the army to the National Health Service. Perhaps the truth is more benign than the centre believes. The hard work the research councils have put into persuading the government of their worth is paying off, to judge by their success in last year's spending round. There is certainly no evidence that political pressure is leading to second-rate science being funded. Instead, the cash the research councils have won suggests that they are taken seriously by chancellor Gordon Brown and his advisers. It is also too early to conclude that RCUK, set up just last year, is a failure. It is a tiny organisation with comprehensive plans covering everything from purchasing to communications, and some solid achievements. It has to tread carefully for fear of seeming overambitious, since research council managers need to be persuaded of the advantages of cooperation and power-sharing.

The real issue is whether the billions being spent by the research councils are buying good science that helps British success. The Centre for Policy Studies points to a decline in British Nobel prizewinners and low British science spending. However, most of the problem is in a single area, the Nobel physics prize, last won by the UK in 1977. Even here, the UK has superb experts such as Stephen Hawking, probably the world's top theoretical physicist. In other subjects, especially medicine, the UK record is a proud one. At the same time, more is being done to push research into application, especially by making it simpler for discoveries to be commercialised, and to make research a more promising career for the brightest scientists.

The centre's proposals risk exchanging perceived Treasury dominance for a system that would instead concentrate power in a single organisation with a single chief executive. Today's set-up has diversity and sometimes has muddle. But a UK Science Foundation might well remove the first without getting rid of the second.

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