Post-Brexit science landscape – Parliamentary Links Day 2016

By Dr Aoife Kiely, Research Associate at the UCL Institute of Neurology

Intro panel
From left: Stephen Metcalfe MP, Nicola Blackwood MP, Jo Johnson MP, Dr Stephen Benn and Rt Hon John Bercow MP. Photo: RSB

The morning of the Parliamentary Links Day I woke up nervous. I’m not generally a ‘business formal’ style of scientist so the imposter syndrome fear of standing out, or going wrong loomed large. However, any nerves were dwarfed by my excitement to take part in the event and meet other delegates and find out what plans politicians had to support UK science post-Brexit.  Continue reading

Getting robots to do agri-science (or George Osborne’s 8 priorities for science)

This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer

George Osborne gave a speech at the Royal Society this morning, in which he highlighted eight research prriorities:

1. Data driven discovery
2. Synthetic biology
3. Regenerative medicine
4. Agri-science
5. Energy storage
6. Advanced materials and nanotechnology
7. Robotics
8. Satellites and space

Sarah Castell jokingly suggested that we could kill two birds with one stone:

You can read a transcript of the speech here. I wasn’t there, so my impressions of the juicy part – the Q&A session – have been gleaned from the Twitter feed. The impression one gets from this is that Osborne didn’t really give satisfactory answers to questions on the migrant cap, the 4G campaign and more. It is fairly clear that the Treasury still does not couple sustained investment in science with economic growth, which is why we need to keep making the case for this.

And what if your research has not been deemed a priority? What about investing in people and skills? The government needs to recognise that the it is not enough to fund research; rather the overall basic research system must be protected. As Kieron Flanagan (Lecturer in Science and Technology Policy as the University of Manchester) has argued, “many of the social and economic benefits of research actually stem from the health and dynamism of the ‘system’ and not from the the impacts of specific bits of research.”

P.S. I’ve been writing more at the Biochemical Society blog recently. You can check it out here:

Update: You can now listen to speech and Q&A session here:

On postgraduate education

This post first appeared at the Society of Biology’s blog and was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer

I recently stumbled upon an article from the February 9th, 1952 edition (guess why?) of Nature, in which the Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds was reported holding forth on ‘Postgraduate Studies in the Universities’. Said VC, Mr C.R. Morris, was reportedly adamant that “young men and women do not… sufficiently realise the importance, or the significance, of the fundamental scientific inquiries proceeding in… university departments.” He also said that “the future of Britain as a great nation, and its future eminence in the sciences themselves, depend upon the maintenance of the high tradition of a university in which all the great fields of human knowledge and speculation are represented in strength.”

Times change. If we consider Morris’ statement as intended to recognise the value of interdisciplinarity, these views still echo true. But on the students themselves, most would agree that today’s cohorts are highly aware of university science and its high quality. In the current climate though, the channelling of students towards academia alone looks increasingly less sensible.

This is one of the issues currently being looked at by the Higher Education Commission (HEC), who are running an inquiry into Postgraduate Education. With the recent criticism of the government for seemingly neglecting this important policy area, there has been much interest in this inquiry. I worked with the Society of Biology to respond to their initial consultation, raising our concerns but also highlighting important strengths and opportunities, in consultation with our memberships. You can read the full submission here (PDF), with key points highlighted in bold. Subsequently, we were invited to take part in a roundtable discussion focussing on the life sciences. This provided an opportunity to discuss some of the issues further with members of the commission and a number of postgraduates from around the UK.

At the session, hosted by the Wellcome Trust, we heard from Professor Julia Buckingham (Pro-Rector (Education & Academic Affairs) at Imperial College London), Dr Malcolm Skingle, (Director of Academic Liaison at GlaxoSmithKline) and Harriet Dickinson (a PhD student and Biochemical Society member from the University of Cambridge), before the floor was opened up for discussion. Some of the key points raised by the speakers, myself and the rest of the group were:

  • The priorities of undergraduates are gearing more and more towards gaining internships and contact with employers. More students are looking ‘away from the bench’ as they see limited opportunities, particularly with fewer individuals able to get funding from e.g. the Wellcome Trust.
  • MSc qualifications are becoming increasingly requisite for entry to PhD programmes, but there are significant financial disincentives for both the individuals and the universities (who, Professor Buckingham said, are “at the end of the day, a business”).
  • There are a variety of ways further study could be made more attractive; financially e.g. no interest charged on student loans whilst still in further education (for current new entrants to the system, interest is inflation-linked even when repayments are not being made) and career-wise e.g. creating clearer career progression pathways.
  • We need to increase fluidity between industry and academia at all levels (Dr Skingle said that the CASE Studentships programme is “amazing” and expressed support for the Doctoral Training Centre model) but that student experience is vital if individuals are to become the institute leaders of the future.
  • Students no longer ‘look down’ on industry, but it can be unclear how to get a clear idea of the opportunities. There is significant concern that if you leave academia you are seen to have ‘jumped ship’, and there are real and perceived difficulties regarding hiring processes in any return to academia.
  • The necessity for postgraduate mobility creates problems for access; there need to be more supportive programmes to provide support.

Professor Buckingham raised the important point that to develop the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ we need to let students “get out” – not be a clone of their principle investigator (PI) – as well as open their eyes to careers outside science and help them to succeed. Harriet made the point that it is difficult even to get PI/institutional support for gaining transferrable skills such as learning foreign languages, and one of the other delegates expressed frustration that his North American collaborators are facilitated to develop entrepreneurial and business skills; opportunities he felt were closed to him in his UK programme. The criticism of ‘funnelling’ to pure academia has been growing recently and was echoed by Dr Skingle, who outlined the essential skills required for graduates and postgraduates to be hired. Amongst them were the traditional areas that are often lamented as being lacking, such as skills in numeracy and communications, but he also stated:

  • subject knowledge
  • ability to solve real problems
  • ability speak the language of different scientific disciplines
  • knowledge of how different industries work; being a good team worker
  • ability to network outside own area of science
  • computer-based systems ability (e.g. smart data mining)
  • ability to change and adapt.

However, his view was that GSK does generally get what it needs from graduates and that UK students match up well internationally.

Regarding the next steps, the HEC are running a number of roundtable events like the one outlined above, the outcomes of which will be combined with the written evidence received and reported to David Willetts (Minister for Universities and Science). We were informed that they intend to take a strategic view to Mr Willetts to present a clear picture. We’ll be following this with interest, as the issues surrounding postgraduate education in STEM have been overlooked for too long.

Incentivising Private Sector Investment in R&D

The original version of this post appeared on the British Ecological Society’s Ecology and Policy Blog

As a whole, UK businesses invest less in research and development than their major international competitors, and there is more that the Government can do to address this disparity. That was the message from Beck Smith, Assistant Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), addressing yesterday’s meeting of the Policy Lunchbox network. Beck provided a fascinating overview of an area of policy that members of the Biochemical Society and British Ecological Society (partners in organising Policy Lunchbox) may know little about but, Beck made clear, should familiarise ourselves with given the vital importance of support from business to the health of the science base in the UK.

The previous Labour Government stated its aim to increase the overall investment in research and development (R&D) from all sources to 2.5% of GDP by 2014, although the current Government doesn’t intend to adopt national targets. In any case, at present, we stand at just 1.8% of GDP being invested; indicating the significant distance that remains for us to catch up with other ‘G7’ countries. Given that the UK Government is committed to tackling the budget deficit and therefore tightening spending, the importance of leveraging other sources for investment in R&D is clear. At the moment, however, the UK is third from bottom amongst the G7 group (ahead of Canada, just, and Italy) in terms of business spend on R&D. In 2009, the 1000 UK companies that invested the most in R&D spent a total of £25.3bn, down 0.6% on the previous year. So what can the Government do to address this potential downward trend?

First, Beck stressed, we need to understand why business and industry aren’t investing as much in R&D in the UK as it could do. Beck outlined research suggesting that one way this can be explained is as a combination of three factors, which collectively can be called ‘market failure’:

1. ‘Spillover rationale’: the suggestion that innovators find it difficult to appropriate all returns from their innovations. For example, the inventor of the first personal computer will have seen others move in to develop this technology and will now occupy a crowded space. This disincentiveses innovation. The Government can address this through means that allow companies to keep more of the benefits of their investments, for example through tax breaks such as the R&D tax credit.

2. Coordination failure: broadly speaking, difficulties encountered by groups of individuals or firms in acting collectively. There may be a failure of businesses to network sufficiently with organisations conducting research (or vice versa) that may be of benefit to them. This could be alleviated by the facilitation of partnerships between industry and universities.

3. Information failure: Differences in the information available to both parties prevent transactions from taking place. This argument suggests, for example, that businesses seeking financial support or partners for R&D projects simply don’t know where to find the necessary information to do so.

Beck suggested that there are a number of levers that Government could use to address these market failures – thereby encouraging greater support from business and industry for science in the UK – through focusing on the following areas:

1. Skills: Universities report that many students entering courses from A-levels require remedial lessons in, for example, mathematics and experimental design, in order to perform. Furthermore, industries have complained that they need to give new graduates from universities additional training before they are competent in their jobs. There have also been reports from industry surveys that there are a shortage of graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to fill posts. Alongside addressing school and university tuition there therefore appears a need to raise the profile of careers in science amongst young people (such as through the STEM Ambassadors programme).

Recent amendments to immigration requirements in the UK may also have sent a negative message to qualified STEM graduates from overseas – those who may be considering further study and research in the UK – regarding the UK’s reputation as a good place to pursue a scientific career. Although the Government has taken steps to address these issues for STEM graduates, these negative perceptions may take some time to dispel.

2. Financial environment: tax-breaks such as the ‘patent box’ (a corporation tax cut of 10% on all profits attributed to patents) could create a favourable environment for companies to invest in R&D. Beck also highlighted the positive role that ‘challenge prizes’, such as the $10 billion Ansari X Prize, can play in incentivising investment and scientific progress. Since the launch of the X Prize, to reward the development of the first viable craft for unmanned space flight, it is estimated that there has been an additional $100 billion of investment in this area of study.

3. Knowledge flow: the Government could amend the Research Excellence Framework, for example to make it easier for universities to employ those who have worked in industry. When budgets are cut within industry, Beck suggested, one of the first areas of investment to be cut is the travel and meetings budget. Employees therefore decrease their network at a time when this needs to be expanding. Facilitating the flow of information between researchers in academia and in industry can help to address this.

4. A long-term, cross-party strategy for science in the UK would also be very welcome.

Beck highlighted recent developments from Government which have gone some way to address the points raised. For example, an annual £250,000 prize fund has been announced (orders of magnitude less than the X Prize but nonetheless a step in the right direction), whilst the Government is pressing ahead with plans for research hubs to link business and academia (so called ‘Catapult Centres’, previously known as ‘Technology Innovation Centres’) to aid commercialisation. However, there are convincing arguments for the state to do much more; such as those recently presented in a work by Mariana Mazzucato called ‘The Entrepreneurial State’.

Speaking about the publication on yesterday’s Today Programme, in the document and online, Ms Mazzucato argues for public policy to be bold and courageous, stepping in to fund areas that the private sector has no interest in, as well as putting in place mechanisms to reap greater returns for itself for doing so. As an example, the United States supported the development of the internet by pouring huge amounts of money into the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which undertook a significant amount of the research underpinning the formation of what is now known as Silicon Valley. The private sector, Mariana suggests, has a reputation of coming into areas of research 15–20 years after a large amount of state investment. It cannot therefore be seen as the answer to addressing deficits in state funding for science and innovation (although it is clearly complementary); the Government must find innovative ways of funding large-scale investment in the science base in this country if we want to see the emergence of another Google in the UK, for example.

Policy Lunchbox is a network for Policy Officers and others working in learned societies and the third sector. It is run jointly by the British Ecological Society and Biochemical Society. See our webpage for details of forthcoming events. The next event will be on how to get the most from party conferences.

Costs, investments and empty labs

This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer

I’ve just seen the shiny new(ish) video for Cancer Research UK’s new campaign called Create the Change. It’s about raising money to help fund their contribution to the Francis Crick Institute, in which they are joined in consortium by the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, UCL, Imperial College London and King’s College London. They’re looking for £100m.

Personally I believe that the Francis Crick Institute is a great idea, but there are significant problems and risks associated with building and launching it at a time of severe cutbacks, and not just in capital and from government. The investment comes at the same time as CRUK (late last year) and Wellcome Trust (early last year) decisions to cut their project grants. This is a huge blow for researchers in the biomedical field, particularly young researchers. It is already very difficult to secure research funding and these decisions exacerbate such problems.

UK grant application success rates are currently around 20%, which brings its own dilemmas, and with competition increasing and renewed emphasis on excellence (seemingly being framed as if mediocre was OK before), many are at risk of exclusion from some of the foremost sources of research funding. However, if our commitment to fundamental research is to be preserved at a level which can maintain our future research excellence, we need to invest in potential. At the moment, the losers of increasingly demanding competition risk exclusion for not being judged ‘excellent’ enough. The Wellcome Trust’s long-term investigator awards are praiseworthy, avoiding the stop-start disruption which affects the planning and productivity of labs. But cutting project grants just increases the uncertainty and instability for those who are not lucky enough to secure one of these, which is the majority.

Fundamentally, project grants are increasingly hard to find. Will the paucity of opportunities start to drive researchers abroad – will there be any talent to fill the labs of the Francis Crick Institute in years to come? Are the differences between costs and investments being fully realised?