Research faces ‘managed or neglected decline’ without clear strategy, says advisory body

A new report from the Council of Science and Technology urges the Government to rethink the way it supports the UK’s research base. Zoë Corbyn writes

March 1, 2010

The UK must maintain a broad range of research capabilities and continue to prioritise excellence in blue-skies funding decisions, says a new report.

The 66-page “Vision for UK Research”, published today by the Council of Science and Technology, argues that the Government needs to adopt a “clear long-term vision”, both for the way it supports the research base and the way it derives benefits from it. It argues that failure to do so could lead to UK research “undergoing either managed or neglected decline”.

The report also says that in the longer term the Government needs to rethink the structure of masters degrees and PhDs, recommending a move to four-year PhD programmes, with the first one or two years leading to a masters qualification.

The council says that the need for a new vision is paramount in light of the pressure on public spending and growing global competition.

To avoid decline, it says the UK “must maintain capability across the research base”.

“The aim should be to ensure a broad range of excellent upstream [blue skies] research”, it says, the outcomes of which “are highly uncertain and often unknowable”. It adds that “attempts at upstream prioritisation on the basis of projected impacts are not feasible”.

The report also says that supporting “excellence wherever it is found” should remain the mantra of funding bodies.

“Funders of upstream research should be ruthless about excellence as the overriding criterion for funding prioritisation,” it says.

However, it acknowledges that more needs to be done to derive wider benefits from research results.

The council also argues for a rethink of the language used to describe research.

The terminology in current use, such as “pure”, “blue skies” and “applied” research, “causes problems and division amongst the research community”, the report says. It adds that phrases such as “curiosity-driven research” can be “misleading and damaging”.

A “looser language” which reflects the relationship “between research and social and economic benefits” is needed, it says.

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