Scientists call for a revolt against grant rule they claim will end blue-skies research

Letter blames research councils' policies for fall in number of UK Nobel laureates, reports Zoë Corbyn

February 12, 2009

A "revolt" against the requirement that academics demonstrate the economic impact of their research was called for this week by 20 eminent UK scientists, including Nobel prizewinner Sir Harry Kroto.

In a letter in this issue of Times Higher Education, the group calls for academics to rebel against new rules that state that the potential financial or social effects of research must be highlighted in a two-page "impact summary" in grant applications.

The requirement to provide a summary, answering questions about who might benefit from the research and how a financial return could be ensured, is being phased in by the UK's seven research councils. The summary will be used by peer reviewers as a factor when determining which applications receive funding.

But in the letter, the group, which includes eight fellows of the Royal Society, "urges" the peer reviewers to ignore the summaries - arguing that it is impossible to predict the economic impact of "blue-skies" research in advance.

The letter says peer reviewers "should confine their assessments to matters in which they are demonstrably competent. In research worthy of the name, we are not aware of anyone who would be competent at foretelling specific future benefits and therefore in complying with the request in any meaningful and substantive manner."

The letter also criticises the research councils for policies over the past 30 years that it claims have subjected academics to "withering barrages of control" and turned researchers' lives into "bureaucratic nightmares". The letter blames these policies for "almost a tenfold decrease" in the rate at which UK researchers have been winning Nobel prizes.

"(The research councils) must become more courageous in dealing with the Government or they will not have an enterprise worth protecting," it warns.

It also rounds on the Government for driving academics to increase the economic impact of their work while ignoring the "serious problem" of low-level investment in research and development by British companies.

"What is the point of having a second-to-none academic sector if its commitment to innovation is not matched by commerce and industry? Academics are, of course, a much easier target," the scientists write.

The letter was organised by Donald Braben, a visiting professor at University College London, and Philip Moriarty, a professor of physics at the University of Nottingham. Professor Braben told Times Higher Education that the academics had reached "the last straw" with the councils. One signatory said he would happily sign "in blood", he added.

"The academic community must stand up," said Professor Braben, adding that history showed that even the most seemingly inapplicable of scientific discoveries could yield huge economic benefits, such as the development of lasers.

"You cannot command developments at the frontier, it is not possible," Professor Braben said.

He added that the new policy spelt the end for blue-skies research. "As soon as you identify a beneficiary for research ... the councils are going to turn it around and say, right, deliver. And then it is applied research ... You can't have blue-skies research if you put caveats on it."

Philip Esler, chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, speaking on behalf of Research Councils UK, said: "The description of impact that the research councils work with is broad, encompassing not only the contribution research makes to the economy but also to society as a whole.

"It covers not only economic benefits, but also those related to public policy, quality of life, health and creative output. Research councils will not be disadvantaging blue-skies research, nor stifling creativity.

"The impact statement is not designed to ask peer reviewers or applicants to predict future benefits. It is intended to allow the applicant to highlight potential pathways to impact, especially through collaboration with partners, and to help the research councils support them in these activities.

"Research councils recognise that impact cannot be solely recognised by the researchers, but requires collaboration with user communities. Where applicants feel that their research is not likely to have an immediate or obvious impact, then they should state that in the application. Excellent research without obvious or immediate impact will not be disadvantaged. We remain committed to supporting excellent research and ensuring that it benefits as many individuals, organisations and nations as possible."

Professor Moriarty said: "No one has attempted this type of grassroots boycott before."

Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, said the UK is committed to increasing the amount invested in research and development by firms, as evidenced by its R&D tax-credit scheme for business.

The 20th signatory of the letter, Herbert Huppert FRS, was added after the letters page of Times Higher Education went to press.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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