Vince Cable talks science

This blog post was written by Beck Smith, the Biochemical Society’s Head of Policy.

At Queen Mary, University of London this morning, Vince Cable made his most revealing speech yet about the future of science in the UK.

While he begin his speech by stating that ‘my colleagues, including at the Treasury, value the contribution of UK science’ what followed suggested that a valued contribution would not be sufficient to protect science from significant spending cuts.

Setting the scene with ‘we face the tightest spending round since post-War demobilisation’ and ‘the Labour Government was planning deep cuts of 20%-25% in the budget of that department’, the science community looks set to assume the brace position.

Dr Cable believes the question he has to address is ‘can we achieve more with less?’ but also recognises the distance between himself and the setting of current practice of setting research priorities through peer review.  While the Government may not be able to directly set research priorities, ‘the Government spends £6bn a year supporting science and research and it is right that I should speak about strategic priorities.’

Dr Cable peppers his speech with questions, in addition to ‘can we achieve more with less?’, he also asks:

  • How far should policy be driven by economic impact?
  • How does Government spending in scientific research contribute to the economy?
  • How do we economise without damaging science?
  • How to prioritise?
  • … How we maximise the contribution of Government supported research to wealth creation?
  • How to encourage academics to collaborate with industry to maximise the benefit of their research?

Citing the OECD 2010 innovation report which ‘shows that investment in intangible assets helped account for between two-thirds and three-quarters of labour productivity growth.  It also suggested that innovation is a key source of future growth for emerging economies’ the expectation of and focus on research innovation to deliver is a key theme through the speech.  Indeed, the OECD speech concluded that, ‘Cutting back public investment in support of innovation may provide short-term fiscal relief, but will damage the foundations of long-term growth.’  Despite acknowledging the increase in science spends seen in the US, China and Germany, it seems that the key message heard from the OECD report by Government is that ‘there is considerable scope to improve the efficiency of government spending’.

On the mechanism of cuts, Dr Cable disfavours salami slicing and appears wary of specialisation for two reasons:

  1. Decisions on which areas should be specialised should be not politicised
  2. Many of the ‘choices are not choices at all because disciplines interact’

Bearing these points in mind, Dr Cable appears to favour the identification of broad problems e.g. challenges thrown up by an ageing population which require collaboration across a number of disciplines.  In addition to the identification of broad problems, Dr Cable suggests ‘there is a case for identifying and building up the areas where the UK is truly a world leader’ e.g. stem cells and regenerative medicine, plastic electronics and advanced manufacturing amongst others.

In answer to the question of ‘How to prioritise’, Dr Cable states a preference s to ‘ration research funding by excellence and back research terms of international quality – and screen out mediocrity – regardless of where they are and what they do.’  He goes on to say that ‘It is worth noting that in the RAE 54 per cent of submitted work was defined as world class and that is the area where funding should be concentrated.’

This ’54 per cent’ has proven to be of the most discussed parts of Dr Cable’s speech, with many believing this to be an arbitrary figure.  Blogger Telescoper said in his post ‘Unravelling Cable’, ‘The comment is made all the more meaningless, however, because the 54% was actually imposed on the assessment panels anyway; they were told to match the outcome of their deliberations to a target profile.  The figure quoted is therefore hardly an objective measure of the quality of scientific research in the UK.’

Towards the end of his speech, Dr Cable turns his attention to the importance of international collaboration (and the need to break down existing barriers to collaboration), the UK and ‘its attractiveness as a destination for the brightest scientists, researchers and engineers from all over the world.’  He then goes on to say, ‘UK researchers already have an excellent record of working across borders.  Almost half of more than 90,000 research articles published by UK researchers in 2008 had a co-author from another country.  Co-authorship with non-UK collaborators tends to produce significant impact gains e.g. papers with USA, Germany, France have impact 50% higher than the UK research base average.

However, in recognising the investment other countries are making in science, it remains to be seen how attractive the UK will be able to remain, as both a place in which to do science and as a potential collaborator.  A blogpost from the Campaign for Science and Engineering exemplifies the difference in attitude between Dr Cable and other world leaders in their (financial) support for science.

Dr Cable’s speech ends with a return to an emphasis on innovation, ‘The key is to find ways of transforming research into innovation.  The UK has a strong record but we need to do more.  This involves building stronger links between the UK’s science and research base and the business community to create more spin-out companies, and to provide a magnet for attracting overseas investors to the UK.’  He also recognises the important role of the UK’s world-leading universities in attracting overseas investors.

In response to the speech, Professor Steve Smith of Universities UK said, ‘Universities understand the constraints on public funding and the need to target scarce resources in the most effective way possible.  However, the coalition government is in danger of sending the message that the UK is not a serious player in the field of science and innovation.’

Perhaps Mark Henderson the The Times in his analysis of Cable’s speech (subscription required)  summed it up best of all by saying, ‘While it would be nice to think we can achieve more by spending less, a far more probable outcome is that we will end up achieving less with less.’

Update 17:32

Russell Group respond to speech saying: ‘Dr Cable has urged UK scientists to ‘do more with less’; they already are. The UK’s leading universities currently punch well above their weight in the international sphere – generally coming second only to the US – but are under-resourced in comparison with their global competitors. Our current 1.3% of GDP investment in higher education is outpaced by the US, Germany, South Korea, Australia, Canada and Japan. Against the odds, with one percent of the world’s population, 12% of scientific citations go to UK-based research.’

Response in full can be read from the link above.

4 thoughts on “Vince Cable talks science

  1. It’s a hard situation and that’s an understatement! The bottom line is cuts are going to happen. The various learned bodies have to be involved if possible but how? If we take the approach that we oppose all cuts then that’s simply not realistic and we can then be ignored as living in an unrealistic world. Equally its hard for us to offer a view on where such cuts should be made as that will alienate people who we represent but that may be inevitable. The only way we can contribute in my view is to engage in constructing a decision-making structure and being part of it. What criteria should be employed? Who will make the decisions? If it’s left to uninformed politicians and civil servants then I hate to think where their priorities may lie. If we are part of the process at least we have a chance to advance arguments and this may (naive comment follows) enable re-evaluation of degree of funding cuts.

    Only by engaging in the process are we able to demonstrate the damaging effects of cuts. If we are outside of the process we lose, if we are inside we may not lose as much but it will be uncomfortable. We are not “signing up” to cuts, we oppose them but we have to be pragmatic.

    It’s not good but we can influence how bad it is (hopefully!)

  2. It is a very difficult question but if the UK is to be a prosperous nation in future it can only be by investing in science and technology. We need to treat scientists better by paying them more – compare the job adverts at the back of “New Scientist” with those at the back of “Accountancy” and you will see why, regretfully, my Physics degree took my into finance, not research.

    Having said that, the science community makes itself an easy target by publishing results on trivial subjects so that they can get a mention on the television news. For example this morning on BBC Breakfast – Scientists discover why we enjoy eating toast so much….!!

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