Big changes in the type of research supported by the higher education funding councils could be on the cards following this week's publication of the Foresight implementation report by the Office of Science and Technology.
The report, compiled by the Foresight steering group, says that universities and funding councils should "reflect Foresight priorities in the allocation procedures for recurrent and capital expenditure". It is likely that one of the key target areas for change in the funding councils will be the structure and operation of the funding councils' research assessment exercise.
In an interview with The THES, the Government's chief scientific adviser Sir William Stewart said that he saw "the need for much closer interaction between the research councils and the funding councils". He said that the OST's science and engineering base coordinating committee, which keeps an eye on inter-ministry policies, could play an important role in helping research councils and funding councils to achieve a more coordinated funding regime that takes into account Foresight priorities. But he added that, ultimately "it is up to the funding councils themselves to decide how to take forward the Foresight recommendations".
Graeme Davies, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "The council will look closely at the implication of the Foresight priorities on the assessment excercise with a view to making interim adjustments for 1996/97." He said that thereafter there could be "more substantial changes" in response to Foresight priorities, especially since the results of the next research assessment exercise will be known by the end of next year. Professor Davies said that "the council will continue to work closely with research councils" in formulating its policies and funding regimes.
Sir William, who chairs the Foresight steering group, said that pressure from universities was a key reason for recommending that funding councils take more account of Foresight results. "We had criticism from a number of vice chancellors that many universities were meeting the government's objective of institutions working more closely with industry but that during the last assessment exercise they were not rewarded for it. The Government has this policy so should not the funding formulae in some way recognise universities who are helping to address it? " Importantly for the research councils, Sir William said: "We will consult widely and Foresight will be implemented with the help of the science community. We in the OST do not want to get ourselves involved in the management of implementation."