Scientists erupt at strategy and call for expert direction

January 16, 2004

Leading scientists this week accused the Department for International Development of having a "woefully inadequate" approach to research.

In a submission to the inquiry into the government department by the Commons' science and technology committee, which held its first evidence session on Monday, a group of academic experts led by the Royal Society called on the DFID to employ a chief scientist to strengthen its use of scientific research.

The scientists, from a range of UK universities, warned that the DFID had insufficient in-house expertise and had failed to engage sufficiently with the research councils and other government departments.

Julia Higgins, foreign secretary of the Royal Society, said: "Current arrangements within the department are woefully inadequate.

"Without a chief scientist, supported by a dedicated scientific team, it is likely that the DFID is missing opportunities to use the latest developments in science to inform development policy or even to gain the full benefits of the research it commissions."

The department is a significant funder of university science. It had a research budget of almost £150 million in 2001-02.

But the Royal Society expressed concern that the DFID's focus was almost entirely short term and often focused on small-scale highly specific research to the detriment of longer-term overarching projects.

Professor Higgins said its work in Montserrat was a key example of such blinkered research policy.

Simon Young, the former director of Montserrat Volcano Observatory, agreed that the department's approach to research was "frustrating". He said that while it was good at funding the immediate monitoring of an active volcano, it was unwilling to consider longer-term research.

Dr Young said: "In volcanology, which is a very young science, there was some very fundamental research that could have fed into what the DFID was planning to do even a year down the line, but they found it very difficult to embrace that."

He added: "The frustrating thing for me was that they seemed to understand engineering more than they did science."

But at the committee's evidence session this week, Paul Spray, head of research at the DFID, rejected claims that the department did not have sufficient in-house expertise. He said the number of professionally qualified staff in the department had increased.

Mr Spray told the committee that the department was working on a research strategy, although he was unwilling to comment on how this might affect its overall budget.

In a written memo to the committee, the department said that the new strategy would rebalance research cash between broad subject areas, with greater emphasis on larger, more strategic, longer-term research initiatives.

Mr Spray said: "One of the things we have been trying to do is to be more efficient in how we spend our money, so we are not chasing after a large number of small projects."

He added that the DFID's research money had now been "untied", meaning that preference could no longer be given to UK researchers.

He said: "It is true that less-qualified British institutions could lose out, but the objective is to get the best quality."

The department now expects UK researchers to compete for research funds as part of international consortia.

In answer to questions from the MPs, the DFID's research team admitted that its relationships with other government departments were "patchy". MPs heard that the DFID was considering setting up a funders' forum to rectify the problem.

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