Monday, 12 July 2010

Research support - Where are we heading?

At long last we know that the first review of research carried out in UK universities under the new Research Excellence Framework (REF) will be delayed by at least a year, until 2014. This decision had been expected for a while, and it was finally announced last week by higher education minister, David Willetts, in a speech on science policy delivered at the Royal Institution, London. The delay to the REF, seemingly, is to allow time for ministers and the academic community to come up with an agreed and acceptable way of measuring that elusive notion, 'research impact'. This is proving very difficult and contentious so far, not surprisingly, and it will be interesting to see whether 'impact' can be measured in a way that makes any sense. Personally, I'm rather sceptical, and for some time now I have been expecting the new REF to turn out very much like the old and familiar RAE (Research Assessment Exercise), with at most minor changes.

As for science policy, while the minister acknowledged that cuts were coming, though with no details likely to be available until the Autumn spending review, he clearly wanted to demonstrate the government's continuing support for science and scientific research in the universities. Blue skies research and serendipity - the process whereby research in one field now and again throws up unexpected insights or discoveries in another - are bound to be part of the process. But why does it actually matter for the UK to have a big, university-based research establishment when most of the world's research, and most new discoveries, happen elsewhere?

Sensibly enough, David Willetts mentioned national pride as one factor. Far more importantly, however, he stressed the need for UK plc to have a high level of absorptive capacity so that we can adapt and incorporate into our domestic production ideas that might have been generated elsewhere. To do this we need a strong domestic scientific and engineering capability, both doing research - some of it at the frontiers of world science - and teaching the large numbers of people needed to enable our economy to be competitive internationally. For most innovations, and most new products, cannot just be taken down 'off the shelf' and incorporated into production without any difficulty. That slightly naive approach just doesn't work. So we need folk who understand the new technologies, really understand them in a very profound way, if we are to apply them successfully, and even develop them further.

As a side remark here, it's worth noting that many developing countries run into problems in using advanced technologies effectively precisely because they lack the sort of research-based science and technology establishment that I am discussing here. This is an area where well focused aid might prove very valuable.

It seems to me that the above line of argument provides at least the bare bones of a highly compelling case for science and technology to be pursued in our universities to the most advanced levels we can manage, though it doesn't get us very far in terms of agreeing the 'optimal' budget for such activities. For that we shall have to wait.

The minister offered three further ideas about ways in which government could support science and innovation. The first is to support shared research facilities, where sharing here can mean either multiple universities, or universities plus private sector companies. In the latter case, sharing can be a means of facilitating better and stronger interactions between universities and firms, perhaps including joint research and support for spin offs; and it can also provide a channel for bringing some private funding into universities. The second idea is to use the public procurement system more actively to promote innovation, which could be done in many different ways.

And the last idea was to hold public competitions for new technologies - with government, and sometimes private companies, putting up suitable prizes. I think this is a great idea, not because I expect it suddenly to solve some of our major problems, but more because I think it would give publicity to some truly exciting and challenging issues for science and do a lot for public awareness of and interest in science. There are already quite large prizes on offer (up to $1 million) for anyone who can find solutions to some extremely arcane mathematical problems or conjectures - this might not sound relevant to new technologies, but who knows? After all, pure mathematics results in number theory from the 1930s turned out in the 1990s to be vital for modern coding and encryption systems, now in everyday use (e.g. for secure internet shopping). Of course, the government can never know what will turn out to be the key inventions and discoveries in any period, so if it offers prizes they might not be in the really vital new areas. But who cares? Let's get some money on the table, define a few prize projects, and see what ideas come up. We could all be amazed by the ingenuity that would soon be revealed.

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