Willetts cooks up 'half-baked' plan for science institutions

Clarification needed on how any of the proposed consortia partners would benefit. Paul Jump writes

January 12, 2012

David Willetts' proposals for a "new kind of university" focusing on science and postgraduates has generated a lot of discussion - and no small amount of scepticism.

The university and science minister raised the idea in a speech last week that focused on the government's aspiration to make the UK the "best place in the world to do science".

Citing the new science and engineering-focused graduate school to be established in New York by Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (see box), Mr Willetts urged universities to initiate similar initiatives in the UK by forming consortia with international universities and local councils willing to donate land.

But he made it clear that no new public money would be on offer: "This time we will be looking to private finance and perhaps sponsorship from some of the businesses that are keen to recruit more British graduates," he said.

He added that "as proposals are developed we will be able to identify any specific obstacles that need to be removed including by legislation where necessary".

Kieron Flanagan, a lecturer in science and technology policy and management at the University of Manchester, said the speech was generally much more impressive than the innovation and research strategy, released in December, which was "a bit vague".

He said Mr Willetts' acknowledgement of the need for targeted public support for generic technology development was a "big admission" for a Conservative-led government.

But he said that the idea for new universities seemed "a bit half-baked and gimmicky" because it was unclear how any of the proposed consortia partners would benefit - particularly international partners.

"Would it be a way for them to access great UK science or UK science funding?" he asked, adding that US universities, which were the obvious partners, "are already pretty well plugged into the UK science system".

Dr Flanagan also questioned whether councils would be prepared to give away land in an era of shrinking budgets, and whether business would be willing to invest in science campuses, which were unlikely to generate profits.

Universities' experience of fundraising suggested that business would be unlikely to offer more than "token" sponsorship, he added.


Gordon MacKerron, director of the Science and Technology Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, agreed that large sources of private finance were "implausible", particularly when large firms were already being called upon by the government to co-finance Catapult centres (formerly known as technology and innovation centres).

"There are no obvious examples of this sort of project taking off with zero public money," he said.

Dr Flanagan also wondered how the policy squared with government aspirations to focus research funding on centres of excellence with "critical mass".

"If the new institutions have university status they will be eligible for public funding, which is basically the only source of funding for basic research. But this will dilute the concentration the government is supposed to be driving," he said.

Simon Gaskell, principal of Queen Mary, University of London, pointed out that many of the grand challenges facing society required multidisciplinary approaches, which suggested that "the most attractive recipients of private or commercial sponsorship will be broadly based, established institutions". He also wondered how the new research universities related to Mr Willetts' aspiration, also mentioned in his speech, to see more UK universities break into the global top 100.

But David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, said this could be done if universities just outside the top 100 were linked to regional research leaders in "hub and spoke" arrangements.

UCL recently announced plans to establish a new postgraduate campus close to the main London Olympics site in partnership with the borough of Newham.

Professor Price said regional consortia could establish shared graduate schools in subject areas that would have critical mass - although he was unclear whether this was what Mr Willetts envisaged.

Speaking to journalists, the minister cited Cranfield University, the science-centred postgraduate university, as the kind of institution he had in mind.

Cranfield's vice-chancellor, Sir John O'Reilly, said postgraduate-only institutions found it easier to respond to the multidisciplinary challenges often faced by business because they did not have to focus on the requirement to "form" undergraduates, which required a discipline-centred approach.

He said more such institutions would not necessarily draw away existing public research funding and could add significantly to the pot by leveraging business investment.

However, he did not believe there was "a huge pool of untapped money" that industry would be willing to hand out "as largesse for academics to do what they like with".

Sir John also argued that nothing could happen without some public funding, and that successful existing institutions would have to be involved to inspire business confidence.

Following months of disquiet over the government's silence on the issue, Sir John was grateful the minister had at least turned his attention to postgraduate education after the focus on undergraduate funding last year. He interpreted the speech primarily as a way to stimulate a debate about whether universities could make an even greater contribution to the economy by forging closer links with business.

Meanwhile another senior university source, who did not want to be named, said academics often paid too much attention to the specifics of such announcements.

"Rather than worrying about this [initiative] too much, I would take this as yet another sign that the government is looking for good ideas," he said.

"Not all of them will work, but they are not trying to prescribe what success would look like: they are trying to create an innovative environment, and innovation is a more fluid process than academia is comfortable with."


Shaken but not stirred by bond between arts and sciences

Although it attracted less attention than the call for new, privately funded research institutes, David Willetts' suggestion that the acronym Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) should be changed to Steam to incorporate the arts will be welcomed by some.

The inventor Sir James Dyson, for example, has long called for recognition of the economic importance of Britain's creative industries, arguing in a speech last year that students who study both science and arts subjects end up as "perfectionists: polymaths who convert problems into solutions".

However, the response on Twitter to Mr Willetts' suggestion was mixed. While some applauded his acknowledgement of the importance of the arts, one twitterer said that he had not gone far enough and called for humanities to be incorporated too, resulting in the "Sean Connery-like" acronym Shteam.

Another suggested that the remaining subjects band together as "Teacher training, Other Social Sciences, Education and Research skills - or TOSSER".

Others ventured that while Mr Willetts might add the arts to the Stem acronym, there was little chance that this would be accompanied by an increase in funding.

Sarah Cunnane

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