Memorandum submitted by Research Councils UK (FC 31)

This response aims to set out the views of Research Councils UK (RCUK) by responding to some of the issues raised by questions in this inquiry. Due to the short time period available for submitting a response, we have focused on the questions which we feel we are best placed to answer. In this response, answers are set out below specific inquiry topics.

In this response 'science' and 'scientific research' has been interpreted to include all aspects of research, including the physical, biological, engineering, biomedical, natural and social science disciplines, and the arts and humanities. RCUK considers that the whole research spectrum, including the arts and humanities, is relevant to this inquiry.

The process for deciding where to make cuts in SET spending.

 

1. Under the Haldane principle, once Spending Review allocations have been made, Research Councils develop their own strategies and priorities and make individual funding decisions based on thorough and detailed peer review. The Research Councils discuss priorities to ensure effective co-ordination of funding.

 

2. All Research Councils have scientific advisory boards comprising members of the research community. Therefore, the vast majority of prioritisation processes involve the research community. Members from key stakeholder communities also sit on the advisory boards, providing opportunities to reflect the views of stakeholders on priorities. Individual Councils of each Research Council take a strategic role in deciding on prioritisation after consultation with stakeholders and advice from the advisory boards. As well as programmes, grants and studentships, any discussion of priorities would also take into account institutes, facilities and international subscriptions.

What evidence there is on the feasibility or effectiveness of estimating the economic impact of research, both from a historical perspective (for QR funding) and looking to the future (for Research Council grants).

3. RCUK is committed to excellence with impact. This means continuing to invest in the best research, people and infrastructure, whilst aiming to enhance the impact of that research on society. The primary criterion for funding decisions continues to be the excellence of the proposal.

4. The demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy includes:

fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic competitiveness of the UK;

increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy; and

enhancing quality of life, health and creative output.

5. RCUK recognises that the research we fund has academic, and economic and societal impacts. All Research Councils provide evidence of actual economic impact and of performance of the processes by which it is enabled and sustained through their Economic Impact Reporting Framework (EIRF). Annual EIRF reports are a useful source of evidence of progress against the objectives of the 10-year investment framework. Achieving impact is not a linear process and Research Councils do not have direct control over the impacts of the research they fund. Impacts occur over a period of time and as the result of multiple interactions. RCUK increases impact from our investments by developing an impact culture through improving support mechanisms, evaluations, sharing best practice and communicating the benefits and impact of our continued support of research, training and the provision of facilities. For example, RCUK is:

developing impact assessment methodologies;

demonstrating the impact and value of sustained investment;

identifying and addressing the barriers and drivers for maximising impact;

optimising schemes for knowledge transfer funding, user partnerships and exchanges;

embedding impact considerations.

6. As part of our broad portfolio of evaluation studies, RCUK has commissioned over 35 impact studies over the last ten years, demonstrating the impact from previous investments. These studies have used a variety of different impact methodologies. The most suitable methodology to use is determined by the area of impact being considered and can be quantitative or qualitative. As a result of developing and undertaking impact studies the Research Councils have found:

diversity of impacts across the research portfolio;

multiplicity of processes to achieve impact;

both expected impacts and serendipity;

impacts manifest at many scales: project, person, organisation etc;

time lags and multiplier effects;

researchers and research are enriched by impact.

7. The studies undertaken include an econometric analysis of the rate of return for investment in health research, an investigation into the career paths and impact of physics PhDs, and the influence of environmental research on policy. Examples of impacts can be found on the RCUK website (http://framework.rcuk.ac.uk/default.htm).

8. RCUK is not trying to assess or predict the future impact of proposed research as part of the application process. Recent changes to the application process were designed to help assess the appropriateness of the activities planned in research proposals to enhance impact for a particular piece of research, in order to ensure that potential impact is maximised. Within the application process applicants have the opportunity to add to their case for support by describing the potential impact of their work, and pathways towards realising that, under the following headings:

academic beneficiaries: this should cover potential academic impact and pathways towards realising that;

impact summary: this should cover potential economic and societal impact and pathways towards realising that by addressing two questions:
i) Who might benefit from this research?
ii) How might they benefit from this research?

impact plans: these should detail the activities which will help develop potential economic and societal impact, answering the question: "What will be done to give potential beneficiaries the opportunity to benefit from this research?"

It is expected that having reviewed the guidance, applicants will be able to answer these questions, however where activities aimed at enhancing impact are not applicable for a research proposal, applicants are invited to explain their reasoning and this will be reviewed with the rest of the proposal.

The operation and definition of the science budget ring-fence.

9. RCUK welcomes the Government's commitment to sustain planned spending on research in 2010/11 and considers that the science budget ring-fence has provided vital stability for the research base, enabling the UK to build upon its research investments and maintain its leading position internationally. In recent years the Government has made a strong commitment to the UK research base supporting research excellence, building capacity and infrastructure. Long-term funding has allowed the Research Councils to build sustainable partnerships with key stakeholders across the spectrum, including business, industry, Government and third sector, and align strategy and research priorities with other funders in the UK and internationally to maximise the impact of the public funding committed to research.

10. The operation of the ring-fence is linked closely with the partnerships that it has helped to develop and maintain. Research has a major role to play in the economic recovery and cuts in UK research funding would have far reaching consequences impacting on funding plans for key stakeholders and as well as the UK's competitive position internationally. The global standing of the UK in almost all areas of research is first or second, and by most measures first in terms of global productivity per pound invested. RCUK considers the science budget ring-fence has been essential to achieving global excellence. If funding is cut from research, especially in the context of recent science stimuli in other countries, the UK risks falling behind international competitors, both in terms of research excellence and productivity, and ability to attract high value inward investment.