CHAPTER 3: improving the mechanisms for
setting research priorities
19. Given the current economic context, our focus
is on how the Government should set priorities for publicly funded
research, ensuring that it represents value for money and is of
the highest calibre. This will involve, first, recognising and
agreeing the objectives of research and, secondly, setting budgets
in the light of identified objectives.
20. The objective of much research, particularly
what is described as "curiosity driven research", is
to understand more fully the nature and processes of the world
in which we livefrom atomic substructure to galactic changeand
to measure, and where necessary to change, the impact of these
processes on the individual and on society (p 1).
21. More specifically, research can bring about
a series of direct and indirect benefits, which include:
- the creation, attraction and maintenance of scientific
and technological skills (pp 1, 399, 359, 475, QQ 465, 456);
- economic benefit (through harnessing technology,
promoting business development and attracting investment into
the UK) (p 1);
- social benefit (such as improving health and
wellbeing) (pp 1, 359, 475, 506); and
- providing evidence to inform and direct Government
policy (pp 1, 43, 70, 371, 383, 446).
22. The Government employ several mechanisms
to enable the research base to meet research objectives (see Appendix
5). Although they are interdependent, each has different aims
and purposes (p 2). Each may use a different primary criterion:
for example, excellence is the primary criterion used by the research
councils, to ensure that the highest quality research is funded,
whereas Government departments' policy objectives determine their
priorities in meeting specific policy needs. The plurality and
diversity that this system provides is considered to be valuable
as it allows multiple opportunities for the best research to be
funded (p 204, QQ 333, 336, 464).
Reaping the benefits of research
through Government policy
23. The Government need to make informed policy
decisions on the basis of the best available advice, which requires
the best possible structures to ensure that advice to Ministers
is independent and of the highest calibre.
24. Understanding how this need can be better
met is the purpose of this report. We make a number of specific
recommendations. They fall into two main categories:
- the need for an explicit Government overview
of public expenditure on researchat both cross-departmental
and departmental levels;
- the need to develop improved mechanisms for setting
We consider each in turn.
Overview of Government expenditure
on research and development
25. All Government departments' research and
development spending should be driven by the need to support policy
objectives. It is likely that, in a number of departments, that
expenditure, like those objectives, will vary from year to year
(Q 100). Only the Department of Health's research and development
spending is ring fenced (p 23).
26. There is often a tension between the short-term
focus of a Government, and especially of a particular Minister,
and the long-term nature of much research. That tension is increased
when budgets are under pressure, and can make departmental research
and development budgets particularly vulnerable at a time of reductions
in expenditure (QQ 278, 282, 79, 563, 327, 102, 103, 104).
27. According to the evidence we received, within
the Government there is no overview of total public spending on
research and development across key policy sectors, or discussion
of national research priorities. Nick Dusic, Director of the Campaign
for Science and Engineering, for example, told us that although
the Treasury decided research allocations to the various funding
mechanisms, it had no overview of all public spending to support
researchthat is, not only Government departments but the
research councils and other mechanisms (Q 327). Lord Drayson
said that "no individual" is "the locus for an
overview of all of the lines of [research] investment" (Q 560).
Professor Beddington confirmed that data were collected at
departmental level and that they did not include the calculation
of figures for specific subject areas across all Government spending
28. Professor Andrew Stirling, Research
Director at SPRU, University of Sussex, also made the point that
in the UK, in contrast to the United States, for example, "aggregated
information" on how much is spent on particular aspects of
research and development within key sectors was not readily available;
as a result, it was difficult to identify the reasons why resources
were distributed as they were (QQ 441, 442, 443). He suggested
that the Government Office for Science, which provides administrative
support to the GCSA, should publish on a regular basis detailed
figures aggregated across all public research investment in key
sectors of the economy such as energy, food, transport, security
and public health (p 287). We agree. Such aggregation would
require Government departments and the other organisations involved
to agree definitions for the categories to be reported. Aggregated
information on public research spending is important not only
for reasons of accountability. Much research in key policy sectors
is essential to maintain national capacity. If that capacity is
lost or jeopardised because a particular aspect is not given sufficient
priority, and is therefore subject to a reduction in funding,
Government policy may suffer.
29. We recommend that the Government Chief
Scientific Adviser should
- publish annually figures on all public spending
to support research, including aggregated figures for categories
the definitions of which have been agreed among Government departments
and with relevant organisations; and
- make appropriate recommendations to the Prime
We further recommend that the Government Office
for Science should have the appropriate resources to support that
Advice and consultation
30. The Government have access to several sources
of science advice, both within the Government (internally) and
from independent advisers (externally). Internal science advice
is provided to Ministers by, among others, the GCSA and departmental
CSAs. Most Government
departmentswith the exception of the Treasuryhave
a CSA to provide advice on and challenge to departmental spending,
strategies and priorities. All departmental CSAs attend regular
meetings of the Committee of CSAs (CSAC), chaired by the GSCA.
The GCSA also attends the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science and
Innovation, ED(SI). ED(SI) is chaired by the Minister for Science
and Innovation and includes Ministers from the Treasury and "all
departments in which science plays a key role in the formation
and delivery of policy" (pp 299-301).
31. The GCSA reports quarterly to ED(SI) on departmental
research and development spending (Q 516). ED(SI) has "agreed"
that departments "should consult" the GCSA and the Treasury
"in advance of any potential cuts to research budgets or
It is not clear, however, how that will work in practice: for
example, Home Office research and development spend is not calculated
in advance (Q 18 in Appendix 7).
32. Lord Sainsbury told us that ring fencing
departmental research and development budgets would make them
less vulnerable in the event of pressure on the department's overall
budget (Q 51). However, Miles Parker, Deputy CSA and Director
for Evidence at the Department for Environment, Food Rural Affairs
(Defra), disagreed (QQ 100, 101). Rather, he and other representatives
of Government departments emphasised the need to increase understanding
of the role of evidence in formulating informed policy and of
the consequences for policy objectives of reductions in research
and development spending (QQ 104, 31, 79, 101). To do that,
science advisers need to be present at meetings at which departmental
policy objectives and the research to support them are discussed.
33. Professor Beddington has proposed that
each department's board should include its CSA or another senior
analyst (p 298),
but some departmental boards meet without a CSA or senior analyst
even present (p 427, Q 498).
34. We recommend that, as part of his oversight
role, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser should be present
at meetings with the Treasury at which departmental budgets are
35. We further recommend that all departmental
Chief Scientific Advisers should provide Ministers with timely
information in advance of departmental budget negotiations.
Improved mechanisms for setting
36. We have identified two broad areas in which
the mechanisms for setting priorities can be improved. We acknowledge
that there are others. The two areas are:
- developing formal mechanisms for identifying
major cross-cutting challenges, including the "grand challenges",
and, where appropriate, putting in place cross-departmental budgets;
- strengthening the role of independent external
advice to Government, including a review of the role of the Council
for Science and Technology.
IMPROVING MECHANISMS FOR RESPONDING TO MAJOR CROSS-CUTTING
37. Responding to major cross-cutting policy
challenges, such as energy security, food security and climate
change, requires collaborationacross research institutions,
disciplines, funding organisations, Government departments and
international boundaries. As Professor Robert Watson, CSA
at Defra, told us, we have to break through the "stove pipes"
among and within institutions that fund research (Q 96).
The Government have a role to play in facilitating co-ordination
and collaboration among researchers in different disciplines and
across different funding streams in order to respond quickly and
effectively to such "grand challenges" (p 120,
QQ 374, 432, 433).
38. Yet, according to our witnesses, research
is often not translated into policy solutions. In part, this is
because of "the lack of incentive for collaborations within
our research system" as a result of "highly competitive"
funding systems and the complex structure of the research councils,
which do not reward or facilitate interdisciplinary or ground-breaking
research (QQ 472, 473, 450, 248, 21, 500; pp 470, 199, 495,
39. More significantly, we received evidence
that co-ordination across Government and between departments was
weak and inconsistent, and that departmental priorities outweighed
cross-Government priorities (p 120). Professor Beddington
thought that departmental "silos" presented particular
difficulties in tackling both cross-cutting policy areas (Q 500)
and "orphan issues", for which no one department has
responsibility (Q 13 in Appendix 7). Professor Sir John
Bell, Chair of the Office for Strategic Coordination of Health
Research, recognised that "current structures" presented
a "really serious problem" that "affects science
probably more than it affects anything else" (Q 425).
Across Whitehall, projects can suffer from the lack of a single
budget or budget holder and having, instead, "a committee
of sub-budget holders" with different and even competing
interests, because the budgets reside within different Government
departments under individual accounting officers (QQ 429,
433, 24). Lord Drayson admitted that departmental "sovereignty"
did not facilitate cross-departmental research activity (Q 561),
and suggested that "additional structures" were required
40. In our view, formal mechanisms should be
put in place to remedy this deficiency. We recommend that the
Government should establish appropriate mechanisms for:
- identifying major cross-cutting policy challenges;
- funding and co-ordinating appropriate responses
to such policy challenges.
We further recommend that:
- separate budgets should be made available
for research programmes to respond to major cross-cutting policy
- each research programme to respond to such
policy challenges should have one, readily identifiable, budget-holder
who would be ultimately responsible for delivering the programme;
- management and delivery of research programmes
to respond to such policy challenges should feature prominently
in budget holders' performance appraisals.
STRENGTHENING THE ROLE OF INDEPENDENT EXTERNAL EXPERT
41. In addition to internal sources, Ministers
receive science advice from external independent advisory organisations,
such as the Council for Science and Technology (CST).
According to Jeremy Clayton, Deputy Head of the Government Office
for Science: "All the committees and advisory bodies you
could want are in the system"; but, as he says, "what
we need to do is make sure that the ones we do have are effective"
(Q 28). We propose three specific areas where improvements
should be made to strengthen the contribution of external advice.
Consultation and transparency
42. During each Comprehensive Spending Review
(CSR), BIS allocates funding to individual research councils and
national academies on the basis of prospective and retrospective
performance assessment, according to the Haldane Principle.
In recent years, this process of allocation has been criticised
for a lack of transparency (pp 193, 360).
The Government are committed to improving transparency and the
allocation process by "consulting more extensively"
before the next CSR (p 2). The consultation will include
the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the British
Academy, the CST, the CSAC and the Confederation of British Industry,
and will be made public (Q 518). We welcome the Government's
Departmental commissioning of research
43. Government departments conduct or commission
research in order to provide evidence to inform policy interventions
(pp 1, 379, 412, 446; Q 101). The evidence we received included
concerns that some departments were not acting as intelligent
customers in commissioning research. Departmental commissioning
processes were described as "ad hoc and inefficient"
(p 200). This, along with other shortcomings such as a lack
of the necessary technical understanding resulting in "over-reliance
on consultancies", could affect the quality of the commissioned
research (pp 146, 200, 470, 476). These problems persist
despite retrospective reviews by the Government Office for Science
and the Cabinet Office of individual departments' approaches to
research prioritisation and use of evidence (pp 24-5).
44. One departmental CSA assured us that departments
would not fund research that was not of high quality (Q 113).
However, Professor Beddington was "absolutely sure"
that departmental commissioning of research for policy formulation
did not always involve the necessary "virtuous circle"
of posing "researchable" questions, with expert external
peer review; nor, in his view, was there always the necessary
"expertise to know who to ask and who to ask what to ask"
(Q 503). In our view, this aspectknowing who to ask
and what to askis fundamental.
45. Departmental CSAs are responsible for the
adequacy of the evidence base and the allocation of funding for
research within their department (p 384). However, some of
the evidence we received suggested that the influence of CSAs
over the research agenda varied among departments (pp 420,
46. In our view, the support provided by a departmental
CSA is critical to a department's commissioning of research.
We recommend that the departmental Chief Scientific Adviser should
be consulted as an integral part of the commissioning process,
in particular in helping to identify the nature of the advice
sought and the relevant expertise.
Council for Science and Technology
47. The CST is the Government's highest level
independent science advisory group and reports directly to the
Prime Minister. We had some difficulty in establishing the precise
role of the CST in the process of priority setting for research
funding and in relation to oversight of publicly funded research
and development spending. The Institute of Physics described the
CST as an "underexploited resource" with limited impact
(pp 427, 195).
48. We recommend that the Government commission
an independent, external review of the role, responsibilities,
objectives and reporting arrangements of the Council for Science
and Technology and the use made of its advice.
16 For full details
of the roles and responsibilities of these (and other) science
advisers, see Science and Engineering in Government: An Overview
of the Government's Approach, Government Office for Science,
October 2009, pp 14-23. Back
Ibid., p 4. Back
Ibid., p 25, para 3.8. Back
In February 2010, we wrote to Lord Drayson on the provision of
independent scientific advice to Government (see Appendix 6). Back
See footnote 30 below. For a full discussion of the principle,
including its history, see House of Commons Innovation, Universities,
Science and Skills Committee, 8th Report (2008-09): Putting
Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy,
(HC Paper 168), pp 40-4. Back
For a full discussion of the lack of transparency in the allocation
process, in particular in the role of Government in setting research
council priorities, see House of Commons Innovation, Universities,
Science and Skills Committee, 8th Report (2008-09): Putting
Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy
(HC Paper 168), pp 45-6. Back