Research intelligence - Sailor made for a crisis

RAEng captain defends CSR stance and tells Paul Jump about science's economic responsibilities

December 2, 2010

After more than 30 years in the Royal Navy, Philip Greenish, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), is not afraid of making waves.

The Durham University engineering science graduate, who rose from being a weapon engineer on warships to oversight of the Navy's annual £400 million applied research programme, hit the headlines in July when his organisation's Comprehensive Spending Review submission advised that funding for particle physics should be cut in favour of engineering.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Mr Greenish said that the submission, which was signed by the RAEng president, Lord Browne of Madingley, was deliberately geared to "get a reaction".

However, he had hoped that most attention would be paid to the submission's overarching point that the state of the UK economy meant that a greater proportion of the research budget should be spent on applied research likely to yield short- to medium-term economic returns.

In the run-up to the CSR, the RAEng was one of six bodies whose advice was sought by Adrian Smith, director general of science and research at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

But while the other five shied away from calling for concentrated spending on specific areas of research, the RAEng "felt very strongly that there was no point being asked for advice by someone in such a hugely important position as Adrian Smith if you don't give the advice that you believe is right".

He added: "When the government is making difficult decisions in an environment where overall funding is reducing substantially, it needs all the advice it can get."

But in retrospect, he conceded it was inevitable that the media, which "love to portray things in fairly polarised terms", would focus on the perceived slight to physics - particularly after "one or two" particle physicists called on him to resign from the governing body of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the main funder of their discipline.

He admitted he considered his position "for a moment or two" before Michael Sterling, chair of the governing body, "made it abundantly clear that I am on the council in a personal capacity".

He also denied that the RAEng's stance had led to frosty relations with the Royal Society (the latter's CSR submission concentrated on the overall damage that would be done to UK research by cuts).

"Because the Royal Society represents the entire spectrum of science, it finds it very difficult to say: 'That bit of science is more important than that bit,'" he observed. "We don't have that constraint."

He stressed that the RAEng had advocated only a "rebalancing" of the research spend towards applied work that could be expected to make economic returns within two decades.

"It is not an either/or and we don't devalue research areas that may produce something in 25 to 30 years," he said. "That has its place, but arguably it has less of an appropriate place now than at a time when money is flowing freely."

Our time has come

Mr Greenish applauded the government's planned £200 million investment in German-style Technology and Innovation Centres, and also congratulated universities for the vast improvement in their relationship with industry over the past 20 years.

He said that he was "delighted" that, "give or take a bit of capital and inflation", the government had largely heeded the RAEng's call for the research budget to be maintained at its existing levels.

But he added that the CSR's flat-cash revenue settlement for science had only strengthened the case for greater spending on applied research because the discipline now had a "moral responsibility" to live up to its claims to be an engine of economic recovery.

"Any taxpayer looking at the way the research arena has been treated and at other areas of public expenditure that have been hit hard would expect to see a return in all sorts of ways, not just economic - although that is the most important," Mr Greenish said.

He also emphasised that the returns have to be measured.

"The man on the street likes it when the UK wins Nobel prizes and Treasury officials like it when they see real benefits, including economic ones, from what we do," he said.

However, he was keen to dispel any perception that the RAEng's response to the economic crisis had been opportunistic. He stressed that the 34-year-old organisation had been quietly making the same point about the importance of manufacturing for years.

"There is a danger for academies that if you too stridently repeat mantras that are not being listened to, you risk being dismissed as yesterday's crank," he said. "You have to say it in the right way for the politics of the time.

"The economic crisis has given us the opportunity to make our points more strongly and to be listened to."

Already registered?

Sign in now if you are already registered or a current subscriber. Or subscribe for unrestricted access to our digital editions and iPad and iPhone app.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Elderly woman looking up at sky

A recent paper claims that the quality of researchers declines with age. Five senior scientists consider the data and how they’ve contributed through the years

Woman tearing up I can't sign

Schools and universities are increasingly looking at how improving personalities can boost social mobility. But in doing so, they may be forced to choose between teaching what is helpful, and what is true, says David Matthews

Eleanor Shakespeare illustration 19 May 2016

Tim Blackman’s vision of higher education for the 21st century is one in which students of varying abilities learn successfully together

Otto illustration (5 May 2016)

Craig Brandist on the proletarianisation of a profession and how it leads to behaviours that could hobble higher education

Door peephole painted as bomb ready to explode

It’s time to use technology to detect potential threats and worry less about outdated ideas of privacy, says Ron Iphofen