Research intelligence - Leave it to the select few

The majority of UK universities should pull out of research, according to Phil Willis. Paul Jump reports

March 24, 2011

Credit: Stewart Weir
Heretical position: The UK can probably sustain ‘no more than 30’ world-class research universities, Lord Willis claims

Phil Willis may have retired as an MP, but his ascent to the House of Lords does not appear to have diminished his passion for science - nor for telling vice-chancellors what they do not want to hear.

Lord Willis of Knaresborough, former chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, stood down at last year's general election. Despite swiftly joining the equivalent Lords committee and becoming chair of the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Liberal Democrat peer admitted he had deliberately kept a low profile while the coalition government bedded in.

But in an interview with Times Higher Education, he said it was time to speak out about the "quite worrying picture" that is emerging around science and research - particularly since drugs giant Pfizer's announcement that it is to close its research facility in Sandwich, Kent.

One major concern is the 45 per cent cut in the research capital budget - which Lord Willis described as an 80 per cent cut once the costs of maintaining existing facilities is deducted - at a time when the UK's global competitors are increasing their infrastructure spending.

"There's a lot of rhetoric but the government doesn't recognise that it is no good having a really fast grand prix car if you can't put new tyres on it twice during the race," he said.

And although David Willetts deserved "enormous credit" for securing a flat-cash research resource budget, he said, the universities and science minister had missed a trick by failing to press harder for a "real gloves-off rationalisation of university research".

Lord Willis argued that the UK could probably sustain "no more than 30" universities with the capacity to attract the best global researchers and carry out world-class research.

The rest, he said, should withdraw from research and merge with neighbouring colleges of further education to create US-style liberal arts and community colleges to deliver the high-quality skills training the UK is "dying for".

He admitted that such suggestions were heresy among vice-chancellors whose "game" is expansion. He likened reform of the academy to reform of the House of Lords: "People talk about it but as soon as anything is mentioned, all the great and good come out and say 'we must talk some more about it'."

But he added that the imperative to maximise research excellence - without which the UK "will simply die away" amid intense international competition - meant that radical research concentration would be imposed by the government if universities did not thrash it out among themselves by "playing hardball" with each other.

He said his own party also needed to "get its act together" and provide "constructive opposition" to the coalition of which it is a part.

He is particularly concerned about the potential for the proposed reforms of the NHS to undo the "huge strides" made by the previous government in joining up clinical and basic medical research.

His fear is that clinical research would not be a priority for the GPs placed at the heart of the new NHS structure, with the result that the UK would blow its chance to become "the most potent force in medical science in the world".

Slowly doesn't do it

Lord Willis said he was also a little frustrated by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee's exclusive focus on leisurely, in-depth inquiries and its unwillingness to respond quickly to events, such as those in earthquake-stricken Japan. The unfolding tragedy there should impel the committee to put more emphasis on safety issues during its planned inquiry into nuclear research skills, the peer added.

He said a Commons committee, with a remit to keep "one foot in the here and now", would have seen that as its first task.

A classic example of responding quickly to events was the Science and Technology Committee inquiry into the email-hacking scandal at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit. Under Lord Willis' leadership, it squeezed in its investigation into the affair before last year's general election.

The inquiry largely exonerated the CRU, but the peer is bitter that the subsequent Scientific Appraisal Panel, chaired by Lord Oxburgh, confined its analysis to process rather than - as he had "firmly believed" it would - examining the soundness of the unit's science.

"It was a really disappointing episode," he said. "It left the sceptics with an open door."

He credited the new Commons committee with "getting its finger on the pulse of a number of issues very quickly". But he added that the "great and good" on the Lords committee, chaired by Lord Krebs, principal of Jesus College, Oxford, contributed to "a wonderful depth of discussion that we never got on the Commons committee". He wished that the latter's sense of "territorial superiority" did not stand in the way of greater collaboration.

"I felt (that sense) when I was Commons chair, too, but there is so much expertise in the Lords it would really help to use it more," he added.

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