What research will the next government back and how should it choose? asks Professor Andrew Westwood.
As we approach the General Election, the discussions of the research community in universities tend to focus on how to preserve the ‘science ringfence’ and the ‘dual support system’ (funding through both the Research Councils and the Funding Councils). There are plenty of warm words in the party manifestos, but no guarantees. The Lib Dems come closest with their “aim to double innovation and research spending across the economy, supported by greater public funding on a longer timescale”. Labour are advocating a long-term funding framework, while the Conservatives are largely following the recent Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) strategy, including their commitment to a £2.9bn ‘Grand Challenges’ fund.
According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, there’s going to be considerably less money in the coming years than there was in 2010. The cuts will be greatest for unprotected departments, especially given the promises of extra spending on health and childcare made on the campaign trail. Most BIS spending – nearly 70% – is on higher education and the majority of that is on science and research, so it’s difficult to see how this might survive intact.
We should not assume that science is immune, or that the case has been made. Nor that politicians don’t want to see changes to the way that money is spent. If we do, then we are in danger of living in a scientific bubble. More so if we believe that repeating the arguments of 2010 will have the same effect in 2015.
At the last Spending Review, when spending was protected, the then universities and science minister David Willetts was told by the Treasury that measuring impact would be part of the deal. It is therefore important to consider what strings might be attached to any future one.
The first is likely to be data. Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), recently said the Treasury had long accepted that the macroeconomic data on science and higher education are strong. This is why the coalition government protected science and removed student number controls. But the Treasury believes that the microeconomic data are poor. The Treasury knows too little about the specific impacts of spending on science and on undergraduate education in individual subjects and institutions.
The second issue is more familiar: commitments to increase spending and political interest in sectors and places. George Osborne has made the Northern Powerhouse one of the distinguishing stories of his time as Chancellor. The Lib Dems have pledged to extend Catapults and increase funding for Innovate UK. Together they have developed several sector based industrial strategies as well as a focus on ‘eight great technologies’, so this isn’t a surprise. Labour are also persuaded by this approach, interested in technical universities and models such as Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and the Warwick Manufacturing Group.
‘Place’ is one of five key themes in the BIS Science and Innovation strategy published in late 2014. With the ramping up of rhetoric around the northern cities, especially Manchester, this has been enough to raise hackles in institutions who feel outside of either the ‘Golden Triangle’ or the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, as well as many within them.
Agglomeration economics has been at the heart of the ‘DevoManc’ story and the Northern Powerhouse. But it also helps to explain the pull of the Golden Triangle. Manchester and the North have the next best agglomeration story to London and the South East. But only the next best. Scientific activity, like economic activity, is drawn to the agglomeration of opportunities, networks, expertise and funding. In short, scale matters. So if you’re in either place then you have some pretty big advantages.
Many geographers will say that both Oxford and Cambridge sit in the ‘Greater South East’ as do research facilities such as Harwell, Rothamsted and Pirbright. Economically, there is a reasonably strong case to say that places further afield such as Warwick and Brighton are also included. So universities such as UCL, Imperial, and Kings are benefitting from these effects in ways they would not if they were lifted up and dropped elsewhere.
This is part of what Vince Cable has described as a ‘giant sucking sound’ towards London. Even if the North can provide an alternative it still has this gravitational pull to tackle. Jim O’Neill recently told the Financial Times that ‘reviving the north is harder than fighting resistance to antibiotics’.
But is it science’s job to rebalance the economy? Most would say not, but it is clear that science and universities are widely seen as a key way of doing so. But does such an approach threaten the UK’s scientific excellence? Thus far at least, little or no resources have been allocated to anything other than world leading science. If the Government wants to pick winners then it has plenty to choose from.
Yet many remain suspicious of politicians and their motives. They are uncomfortable about an agenda that promotes places, sectors or more performance data. Nevertheless, these are conversations that are taking place in government and are likely to intensify over the next five years. So we shouldn’t pretend that they don’t exist or don’t matter. The next parliament may or may not commit to more spending or investment in science, but if it does, there are likely to be expectations that come with it.
A new government of whatever form will want more information about how we manage science funds and what they generate. They will also want to see science making better connections to the places and sectors that will drive economic growth. These will be their challenges and their terms. What will be our response?