The market is not the only measure

March 20, 1998

Scientific enterprise has transformed life across the world in recent decades and is now doing so again. Research provides the knowledge base for information technology, biotechnology and the other revolutions of today. So why do the researchers who are making this new world, especially those in British universities, seem so short on confidence and cash?

The main issue, as always, is money. This week, politicians will make the most of Science Week to say how important they think science is. And the record of science minister John Battle - for example, his enthusiasm this week for a possible European Moon mission - leaves no doubt that he means what he says.

Tuesday's budget suggests that more significant figures in the government, especially the chancellor, agree that research is important. Reduced capital gains tax bills for long-term shareholders will be attacked by City dealers for pandering to shareholder inertia. But many academics with ideas for business start-ups will welcome the plan. Investors holding shares for more than three years will have lower tax bills when they sell. And more significantly, owners of small businesses - such as academics with plans to market their inventions - will pay as little as 10 per cent when they sell. So both inventors and investors have an incentive to start businesses that just might produce significant revenue streams for universities.

The Pounds 50 million that the chancellor announced for "university challenge," the venture capital fund for universities, is also welcome, although as we point out (page 3), Gordon Brown has shown some gall in the way he described the scheme in his speech on Tuesday. Only Pounds 20 million is coming from government. The rest is coming from charities, which would otherwise have used the money for some other worthwhile task, quite possibly in universities, and from cash that universities have to find themselves.

Because institutions will have to provide part of the cash from their own resources, universities that are already well capitalised are most likely to succeed in bids for challenge money. It is pleasing that Oxford (Research section page R2) is able to launch ventures to fund promising biosciences developments, but it would be even better if funders saw the potential at universities that need the money even more.

As the experience of British academics working on the continent shows (R4-R5), other countries still seem to be ahead of the United Kingdom in pay, careers and conditions for researchers, although few continental institutions can offer anything like the record of success in significant discoveries shown by the UK's top research universities. (The Swiss, however, seem to be climbing fast up the league tables.) Keeping up will cost money, and like everything else in British public life, that means waiting for the summer and the comprehensive spending review. The success of British science in recent years - there has even been a resumed flow of Nobel prizes - is one argument for more money. So are complaints from the private sector that there has to be a properly resourced academic science base for it to fund and work with, to provide it with the people it needs and to generate the ventures for the Challenge Fund to back.

If the spending review genuinely is comprehensive, starting from the ground up to determine what taxpayers' money ought to be used for in the new century, research is bound to be a priority. But this is not an exercise akin to US President Jimmy Carter's unsuccessful "zero-based budgeting" of the 1970s, in which every item of expenditure is asked to justify itself. Instead, this week's budget gives us a good idea of what the priorities are, with restructuring the welfare state, health, school-level education and welfare-to-work prominent among them.

So research is going to have to look to its own salvation. European funds are one possible underexploited avenue, although as Howard Newby points out (page 6), the stingy overheads on such awards mean that too much success in winning European cash might do institution finances more harm than good.

Unfortunately, as Hubert Markl of the Max Planck Society (page R6) pointed out at this week's Royal Society meeting on European research funding and collaboration, the Commission adds yet another layer of decision-takers to a scene which in Germany already divides power between the federal government and the Lander. In Britain, the Scottish and Welsh assemblies and the regional development agencies for England will lack the power of the Lander but will have a say in higher education. With research councils, funding councils, commercial sponsors and the Office of Science and Technology all having strategies to which universities must adapt, bureaucratic overload is a distinct danger.

Budget week is a good time to recall that there is plenty of good research that never produces a direct commercial spin-off. This applies particularly to the arts and humanities, despite the emergence of cultural industries as a recognised part of the economy. Even in a sector such as healthcare, which involves big budgets and major commercial organisations, research in areas such as patient care will do more to improve lives than breed spin-offs. And in science it has never been possible to predict which bits of serendipity will yield riches.

The danger in concentrating on making it easier to start enterprises to commercialise research is that work not suited for such treatment starts being forced into an ill-fitting business mould. And none of these stratagems should let the government off the hook of recognising that mainstream research money for people and equipment is needed if there are going to be any innovations to develop in the future.

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