Research intelligence: 'High-level oversight'

Adrian Smith tells Zoë Corbyn about BIS' move to seek the sector's advice when allocating the science budget

March 11, 2010

Few would dispute that the process of carving up the science budget has been something of a mystery to most researchers in the past.

Recalling his time as head of the Natural Environment Research Council, John Krebs, a member of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, recently said it was "never clear" how the government determined its allocations to each research council.

But as the government works to allocate the budget for the next three years after the current Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) period comes to an end after 2010-11, there is a new commitment to bringing greater transparency to the process.

Under pressure from both the Lords and MPs on the science select committees, John Denham, the former universities secretary, agreed that the government needed to seek more explicit advice before determining who would get what.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is currently seeking recommendations from six key national bodies on how it should spend the science budget, which for the first time also includes quality-related (QR) research funding. There is even a commitment to publish their advice this summer.

The man charged with gathering the suggestions, weighing them up and making final recommendations to ministers is Adrian Smith, director-general for science and research at BIS.

He said that the spending review would "battle out what the total size of the investment in science and research will be" - it is currently about £6 billion a year, including QR funding.

"Then myself and others will have to make recommendations as to how we carve that up between all these different headings and research councils," he added.

It is certainly an interesting time, not least because of the many unknowns. The general election is expected in May, prompting speculation about how different parties will handle budgeting issues given the financial crisis.

There is already serious concern in the science and higher education sectors about last December's pre-Budget report, which announced £600 million in cuts over the next CSR period, but did not say whether this would come from student support, higher education or science and research.

That a CSR did not take place last year as originally envisaged makes planning across the sector even more difficult. Professor Smith said the Treasury would set the overall size of the science budget, and it would then be down to him and his team to advise on how it should be distributed.

The issues they will have to consider include how much should go to the Medical Research Council, for example, compared with the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. They will also have to consider how much cross-council programmes should receive.

Trusted advisers

The six bodies that have been chosen to give formal advice to Professor Smith are: the Royal Society; the Royal Academy of Engineering; the British Academy; the Council for Science and Technology; the government's departmental scientific advisers, including chief scientific adviser John Beddington; and the CBI. Professor Smith said the aim was to garner "high-level oversight".

"There are a million other groups that will be interested, but the rationale for not including the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry or the University and College Union (in the formal consultation) is that they would lobby for particular bits of the spectrum," he said.

However, he was careful to note that the views of others would still be taken into consideration.

"Every man, woman or dog in the land will bend my ear about what they think," he joked.

Professor Smith said he expected participants in the consultation to raise issues as diverse as the strengths and weaknesses in specific areas of research and the economic and social priorities of the UK.

His job will be to hear them all out and then consider the choices and balance trade-offs before offering his final recommendations to ministers.

"There is no formula," he said. Professor Smith expects the advice from the six bodies to be made public in June or July, and the spending review to be completed by around September.

He said there was "a huge complex mix" of areas vying for funding, noting that "at the end of the day, there is a finite pot".

His aim, he said, was to "get the very best advice and to be as aware, alert and well informed as possible. It is not exciting, but it is a sensible approach," he added.

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