Science Question Time: Unanswered questions

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

Last night saw ‘Science Question Time’ at the Royal Institution, a panel discussion chaired by The Times’ Science Editor Mark Henderson. The panel comprised:

• Rt Hon David Willetts MP (Minister for Universities and Science)
• Prof Colin Blakemore (Professor of Neuroscience, University of Oxford and Former Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council)
• Dame Professor Janet Finch (Professor of Sociology, Manchester University and independent Co-Chair of the Council for Science and Technology)
• Philip Greenish (Chief Executive, Royal Academy of Engineering)

The opening remarks focused on words of congratulation for David Willetts following the results of last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) which saw a flat cash settlement for science over the next four years with Philip Greenish calling it a ‘good settlement for the sector’.   Janet Finch suggested that at the current rate David Willetts may be heading for the prefix of ‘much loved’ but cited concern about the current lack of a coherent vision to run alongside the spending plan.  Colin Blakemore observed that David Willetts had been infected by the ‘science bug’, a condition which induces enthusiasm and support for science in those without a formal science background.

Following congratulations, each panellist went on to identify some of the challenges now facing the sector in the wake of the CSR:

• Philip Greenish – Feels that the UK is not as good as it should be at translating science into wealth and that at this time more investment should be focussed on areas of research that can bring tangible benefits to the economy in the short to medium term.
• Janet Finch – Offered two points to keep an eye on. The first, a need to avoid complacency regarding the UK’s current position as competition from other countries increases.   The second, in implementing the CSR, support should be given to the entire research base, there should not be ‘picking and choosing’. There must be focus on people (as opposed to topics), investment must be made both in our own best people and ensuring that we attract the best people from across the world.

• Colin Blakemore – Feels that science has been given top priority; results of CSR recognise the importance of science.   With this recognition comes responsibility and consideration must be given to how to evaluate the ability of the science community to deliver on the promises it has made. He also stressed the importance of funding both fundamental and applied research, but recognised that applied research is likely to be an easier ‘sell’.

Having heard from all of the panellists, David Willetts responded and in discussing the favourable CSR settlement, he expanded on comments made earlier in the day, saying that it was the quality of evidence built up and offered (e.g. Royal Society – The Scientific Century) during the decision-making process that was pivotal in securing the science spend.

David Willetts offered three challenges which both BIS and the science sector now faces:

1. Flat cash Vs. Inflation = a real reduction. Clearly how this will be managed presents a significant challenge – reference was made to the Sir William Wakeham review ‘Financial Sustainability and Efficiency in Full Economic Costing of Research in UK Higher Education Institutions’.
2. Reduction in capital expenditure – the challenge posed by fixed international subscriptions and very costly equipment.   He observed that in this situation, in managing these expenditures, people can become the variables.  This led to comments about the need for a stable career path in science and the development of ‘the right kind of career pyramid.’
3. The issue of QR and the ‘clustering of excellence’ – how best to address this. An example provided was that of institutions which score particularly highly in one area but not as high in others.  What is the best of encouraging collaboration alongside competition? He referenced the announcement of the Department of Health and Office of Life Sciences Therapeutic Capability Clusters programme.

Following this, he offered an observation of the current environment in which he felt there was, ‘mutual cooperation and mutual trust alongside stable funding in which to address these issues’.

The next topic for discussion was that of immigration caps (great blog post from CaSE on this issue).   Janet Finch, building on her earlier remarks, reiterated the need for the UK to have a reputation as the best place for science – the issue is not just about obtaining a visa to work in the UK, but creating an atmosphere in which you don’t feel as though your future is precarious – ‘Nobel prize winners don’t arrive fully formed.’   In response, David Willetts recognised the challenges this issue presents and said that he is currently discussing this issue with the Home Office and hopes to reach an agreement in the coming weeks. In addition, he said that the Prime Minister also understands the need for us to recruit the best minds. He then focused on the example of international students signing up to ‘bogus institutions’ and the abuse of the system this represented. It could be the case that effectively tackling issues such as these may uncover some additional flexibility in the system.

Mark Henderson then asked the panellists to identify what they considered to be the next big issues:

• Philip Greenish – How we do show that we’re generating wealth?
• Colin Blakemore – The need for quicker translation and how can this be done most effectively with public funds? How to encourage industrial investment in commercial R&D?  How to choose areas for Hauser Institutes?
• Janet Finch – (over the next 12 months) How to find a better balance between cooperation and collaboration? The observation that post-CSR, will concern now shift to the Research Excellence Framework (REF). She expressed concern that discussion on this issue would slip back into the old debates where the question really needs to be how to best use the resources we have.
• David Willetts – The challenge posed by the administration savings to be made in BIS and an observation about the ‘compliance costs’ the science community faces through mechanisms such as RAE/REF.

Audience questions covered a wide breadth of issues, with some raised more than once, in particular pressing David Willetts to address concerns about how scientists can do more for less when many are already working flat out.  These questions  followed David Willett’s earlier enthusiasm for US scientists using iTunesU to promote/communicate both their science and their institution.

Others questioned the impact of cutting the museums budget on our ability to inspire the next generation of scientists?  Philip Greenish answered that he felt it would and that we needed to be cleverer and smarter at attracting next generation of scientists.

Despite the praise for the outcome of the CSR, the number and breadth of issues raised showed that UK science is by no means out of the woods.  This event was a useful opportunity for the science community to raise these concerns with key decision makers and we should all hope for more opportunities of this kind in future.

Perhaps the final word should go to Stephen Curry who tweeted after the event, ‘…Think it has given Mr Willetts and res. community much to think about. Hard choices ahead.’

The account above comes from notes I took at the event.  Further information and different perspectives can be found through the links below, I’ll update this post with links to other accounts as I find them.

Twitter #sciqt
Twitter #sqt

ResearchResearch.com: ‘Willetts hopes to reach immigration deal soon’

3 thoughts on “Science Question Time: Unanswered questions

  1. Pingback: Bek's Files

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