Penny wise, pound foolish

November 7, 1997

If academics were twitching about the way in which research has been treated in the Dearing aftermath - relegated to the sidelines while teaching and learning receive all the attention - they will not have been mollified to hear this week from the Office of Science and Technology (page 52) that any announcement on research will have to wait until the government completes its comprehensive spending review next year. The review is designed to take a sceptical look at spending, and only a supreme optimist could hope to gain anything from it, despite Dearing's clear statement that more money is needed for research.

While the DFEE is responsible for the health of the university sector, and the OST oversees the role of research in the British economy, nobody but researchers can perform the vital task of communicating the case for well-funded research across a wide range of disciplines. For example, the forthcoming Kyoto conference on climate change will involve politicians in deliberations based in large measure on immense computer models of the Earth's climate. British organisations, including the Natural Environment Research Council and the Meteorological Office, have been to the fore in developing these models, without which the producer lobby's insistence that there is nothing to worry about might still be generally believed.

In addition, the OST is right to point out that Dearing's recommendations on research tend to involve money. Most significant is the notion that yet more money should be shipped to the research councils and attached to their awards, instead of being handed out by funding councils. This step would reduce the importance of the research assessment exercise just as the shape of the next RAE is starting to be discussed. If, as seems likely, the new RAE is not a zero sum game, and money can be made by staying out as well as by going in, this will mean changes to the elaborate tactics adopted by institutions last time round.

Perhaps a priority is to make clear to those responsible for the comprehensive spending review that lobbying for research is not simply an axe-grinding attempt to win more money for universities. It is also a contribution to better government. Government pronouncements have always cited "support for policy" as one of the reasons to spend money on research, and it is vital that money continues to be spent to support the UK's ability to take research-based decisions on everything from teacher training to development aid. A high level of government departmental spending on research means better-informed government as well as more money and a higher profile for research.

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