CHAPTER 4: flagging up further issues |
49. We received evidence on a range of other
issues relating to the prioritisation of publicly funded research.
They included the balance between "responsive-mode"
and "targeted" research; supporting private-sector research
and "innovation"; increasing concentration of research
resources; and the use of "impact" as a criterion in
funding decisions. We recognise the importance and complexity
of these issues. Although we have not, at this stage, explored
them fully, we draw them to the attention of the House as matters
to which, we anticipate, this Committee will wish to return in
50. In February 2009, Lord Drayson posed the
question whether "the balance of investment in science and
innovation" should "favour those areas in which the
UK has clear competitive advantage".
In evidence to us in February 2010, he suggested that the approach
of targeting funding on competitive areas presented "part
of the answer to the problem" that economic pressure presents
51. We recognise that some targeting of research
is neededfor example, to meet departmental policy objectives
(p 1); to achieve the necessary scale of activity within
an area of science in which major infrastructure and skills are
required (pp 505-6; Q 289); to encourage the development
or application of research in areas of identified academic excellence
or economic strength (p 231, QQ 371, 343); and to respond
to identified major cross-cutting policy challenges (pp 147,
396, 447; QQ 290, 340, 422, 473, 484).
52. However, some witnesses expressed anxiety
about the possibility of responsive-mode research being targeted.
It was suggested that targeted research funding might, in some
circumstances, result in a conflict with the principle of excellence:
whereas funding for responsive-mode research is "highly competitive"
and "can raise standards" (p 194), a targeted approach
risked funding "poorer quality" or even "mediocre"
research (pp 353, 357). Much of the evidence we received
emphasised the importance of "basic" research, in particular
in generating the most important breakthroughs (pp 353, 496)
and as a necessary precursor to much applied research (p 427).
Furthermore, a low level of public funding for responsive-mode
research had a disproportionate effect on some disciplines, such
as mathematics and chemistry, because of a lack of alternative
sources of funding (p 367, Q 474). Recent assessments of
the future of research have recommended increasing the funding
available for individual researchers, as opposed to particular
research projects, in order to protect the excellence associated
with "responsive-mode" research.
53. Some witnesses argued that, in order to find
necessary solutions to societal challenges in a time of financial
constraint, the "delicate balance" between targeted
and responsive-mode research needed "to swing towards targeted
research in the short to medium-term" (pp 98, 100).
In contrast, others argued that the balance had already "swung
too far" towards targeted research (pp 417, 496, 501).
Figures on research council funding for responsive-mode and applied
research show that the amount of funding allocated to responsive-mode
research has remained fairly constantor, indeed, in the
case of some research councils, that funding for responsive-mode
research has increased (pp 174-9).
Some witnesses said that the balance between responsive-mode and
targeted research should be "dynamic" rather than "static"
(pp 100, 194); and that there was "no magic formula"
(p 360): it was a "judgement call" (Q 291),
the success of which could be evaluated only retrospectively (QQ 292,
54. It goes without saying that an appropriate
balance needs to be maintained between the different types of
research. We were told that, in the light of its inherent unpredictability,
responsive-mode research is likely to fare less well in challenging
economic circumstances than targeted research (pp 417, 467).
With this in mind, we urge research councils, in determining
the appropriate balance, to give due consideration to the role
and importance of responsive-mode research in meeting the broader
objectives of research.
Supporting private-sector research
55. The UK's ability to translate research into
applications remains poor in comparison with the volume of high-quality
research carried out in the UK (pp 254-5, 356, 420, 422-3,
426, 469, QQ 292, 414, 574). Maximising the benefits of research
would therefore require a significant increase in the effort devoted
to the translation of research findings into successful applications.
In the light of the importance of the contribution of private-sector
investment in fulfilling that objective, the Government have a
role in supporting such investment both directly and indirectly
(QQ 362, 456).
56. The translation of research into new products,
services or processes is part of the process of "innovation",
which the Government have made a national priority.
Public funding mechanisms to support "innovation" include
the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), R&D Tax Credits, the
UK Innovation Investment Fund and the Small Business Research
Initiative (SBRI) (see Appendix 5). Regulatory interventions,
standards, regional development agencies, and departmental institutions
and agencies also play an important role (p 22, QQ 397, 393-6).
57. In order to attract private-sector research
investment and thereby encourage innovation in the UK, witnesses
argued that relevant policies had to be clear and consistent over
the long term (QQ 394, 460, 375, 394, 456). Some witnesses
told us that UK innovation policy lacked coherence and a strategic
approach; and that the clarity and stability provided by a strategic
approach were vital in encouraging private-sector decisions to
invest in research (QQ 362, 375, 394, 456, 460, 472). The
CST report A Vision for UK Research, published in March
2010, stated that the Government need to develop consistent, focused
long-term industrial strategies, backing novel key technologies
with global market potential to provide a framework for research
investment by the private sector, research councils and the TSB.
58. A number of witnesses made suggestions to
help achieve this, including expanding the role and increasing
the resources of the TSB, and developing a system of large research
centres (pp 194, 200, 441, QQ 362, 407, 460, 471). We await
with interest the publication of Hermann Hauser's review of how
the UK might maximise its research potential, and the Government's
response to both that review and the CST's recent report.
Increasing concentration of research
59. We recognise that for some research activity,
such as that based on large experimental facilities, or for more
applied research projects responding to major policy challenges,
concentrating relevant skills and financial resources in particular
locations may be necessary in order to achieve the necessary scale
of effort and facilitate knowledge transfer. However, the implications
of concentrating research resources within particular institutions
are poorly understood, and it was suggested to us that the evidence
base to support further concentration remains weak (Q 448).
Again, we await with interest the publication of Hermann Hauser's
review, which we anticipate will cover the role of concentration
of research resources in realising the full potential of UK research.
60. In recent years "impact" has been
increasingly used as a criterion both retrospectively, in research
council delivery plans and evaluations, and prospectively, in
individual grant applications to research councils. It is a concept
that encompasses more than economic impact. Professor Alan
Thorpe, Chair of the Research Councils UK Executive Group and
Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, for
example, said that "we do not regard impact as narrowly as
... economic benefit ... it is a very broad concept" (Q 271).
61. Professor Dame Janet Finch, co-Chair
of the Council for Science and Technology, observed that "any
assessment of impact needs to take into account that breadth"
(Q 477). Measuring "impact" presents difficulties.
Professor Leszek Borysiewicz, Chief Executive of the Medical
Research Council (MRC), for example, admitted that the MRC was
"struggling" to measure societal impact (Q 272).
Professor Sir Martin Taylor, Chair of the Royal Society's
Fruits of Curiosity project, said that scientists were often very
poor judges of the likely impact of their research (Q 478).
Witnesses also expressed anxiety about the timescale involved
in measuring research impact (pp 345, 360, 497, 506, Q 478).
As Professor Beddington, said, "almost by definition,
the impact of research comes after some variable time-lag, depending
on the research ... whether one could have actually had that degree
of foresight to say that some particular development would actually
prove to be enormously important some decades later ... is difficult"
62. Professor Dame Janet Finch clearly stated
that the CST's view of prospective assessment of impact was that
"there should not be any principle other than excellence
in the identification of [basic] research projects to be funded"
(Q 477). Professor Beddington believed that it was almost
impossible "to have a criterion on the basis of impact other
than the fact that a particular piece of research is solving a
problem that we can well identify" (Q 509).
63. Nevertheless, other witnesses told us that
including consideration of impact in prospective assessments might
result in opportunities for collaboration in and development of
research that would not otherwise arise (QQ 274, 275, 277)
and that this had brought about an important culture change (Q 451).
Professor Adrian Smith, BIS's Director General, Science and
Research, described prospective assessment of impact as an attempt
to encourage "a culture, an awareness and a behaviour change"
to identify and support opportunities for exploitation (Q 552).
64. The term "impact" is not clearly
understood and is ambiguous, not least because it is multi-dimensional
in nature. However, it is often used as if it were well defined
and could, indeed, be quantified. In our view, the methods of
assessing and quantifying "impact" have not been sufficiently
developed and justified. We therefore have reservations about
the use of "impact" as a criterion in prospective assessments
of individual applications for funding to research councils. We
therefore propose that, when the relevant funding organisation
considers "impact" to be a material factor in funding
research, it should make an explicit statement of the nature and
quantifiability of the expected impact of the research in question.
65. The new retrospective assessment proposed
by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), called
the Research Excellence Framework (REF), "will for the first
time explicitly take account of the impact research makes on the
economy and society" (p 3). HEFCE proposes a weighting
for impact in the REF of 25 per cent. HEFCE does not propose "any
trade-off between impact and excellence" but will assess
only "impact that arises from excellent research", whether
"curiosity driven" or "applied" (Q 219).
Many respondents to HEFCE's recent consultation on the REF expressed
concern about the inclusion of research "impact" as
a criterion, arguing that the assessment of "impact"
would be subjective. We understand HEFCE's wish to take account
of the wider impact of research, but are yet to be convinced that
a practicable and fair way of doing so has been found. We therefore
recommend that, in HEFCE's proposed new retrospective assessment,
the weighting given to impact should be significantly less than
the 25 per cent proposed.
22 Speech to the Foundation for Science and Technology,
4 February 2009. Back
A Vision for UK Research, Council for Science and Technology,
March 2010, p 25; The Scientific Century, Royal Society,
March 2010, p 48. Back
The Scientific Century, Royal Society, March 2010, p 15. Back
The Government provide direct funding to support private-sector
research investment through the UK Innovation Investment Fund
and the Small Business Research Initiative. Tax credits are available
for private-sector research investment. In the December 2009 Pre-Budget
report, the Government announced the introduction in April 2013
of the Patent Box initiative, under which companies that develop
a patented technology in the UK will be eligible for a reduced
rate of corporation tax (see Appendix 5). Back
Innovation Nation, Department of Business, Innovation and
Skills, March 2008. Back
A Vision for UK Research, Council for Science and Technology,
March 2010, p 30. Back