Not-so-furious five (plus peer) make last-ditch effort to deflect the axe

V-cs and Royal Society leader emphasise research that touches people's lives. Paul Jump reports

September 30, 2010

University heads lined up to emphasise the practical applications and economic benefits of university research in a final push last week to stave off swingeing cuts to the budget in the looming Comprehensive Spending Review.

Five vice-chancellors plus Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, told a packed press conference in London that the UK's research excellence could be irreparably damaged if the science budget was slashed just as other countries were investing heavily to attract top researchers.

But it was the connection between that excellence and practical and economic benefits that the vice-chancellors were most keen to emphasise.

Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, said universities had not helped themselves by assuming that everyone knew what they meant by "research", and waxed lyrical about how UCL research had led to a "spectacularly successful" operation that had saved the sight of a boy at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.

"This isn't abstract research: it...touches people's lives," he said.

Rick Trainor, principal of King's College London, and Sir Andrew Haines, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, offered numerous examples of the practical benefits of their institutions' research, while Simon Gaskell, principal of Queen Mary, University of London, was astute enough to add a reference to universities and science minister David Willetts' favoured argument about the UK's "absorptive capacity" to capitalise on research carried out abroad.

More practical examples followed from Glynis Breakwell, the University of Bath's vice-chancellor, who warned that large-scale cuts would "waste" a decade of increased investment in research: "Playing catch-up later wouldn't be effective and could prove impossible."

The strength of these arguments was not queried by the attending journalists, but one wanted to know why the vice-chancellors did not appear to be more angry.

"We are in polite company," Professor Grant joked, while Lord Rees said that "many interest groups" were busily making their arguments to government and he had no reason to believe they were not being heard. He refused an invitation to say what should be cut in preference to the science budget, but Professor Grant urged the government to rethink its ring-fences on the budgets of "totems" such as the NHS, which were announced during the election campaign "for political purposes".

"I am still waiting to see the long-term economic strategy to which science and research aren't relevant," he added.

Vince Cable's understanding of the research brief also came in for further criticism following his remarks about "mediocre" work earlier this month. Professor Gaskell said the business secretary had "appeared to express surprise" when he learned that Queen Mary had an innovation centre.

"I was very alarmed because it suggested his level of understanding isn't what you would hope," he said.

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