Vince Cable made much of his scientific credentials yesterday: “I’m one of few MPs to have at least started a science degree,” he told the audience for his speech at Queen Mary. He also of course went on to complete a PhD in economics. This should mean that he treads carefully around statistics. Alas, no.
On the Today programme yesterday, the Business Secretary claimed that, “something in the order of 45% of the research grants that were going through were going to research that was not of excellent standard.” This quickly became a story about the taxpayer funding “mediocre” research, and is being spun as a justification for budget cuts.
Here’s an explanation of why the story is wrong…In the last Research Assessment Exercise, 54 per cent of the work that was submitted for assessment was classed as 3* or 4*, which means it is, by definition, world class. This research receives £980m from Hefce. Research that is 2* (which Hefce still regards as ‘internationally recognised’) gets £115 million and 1* research gets nothing. So Hefce allocates the vast majority – nearly 90% – of its funding to world class research.
Of course, Hefce is only one part of the funding system. The Research Councils spend more than Hefce on research. The success rates for applications to the Research Councils are pretty low, meaning that they already turn away many proposals that are considered world class.
So, on any reading of the Government’s own numbers, it’s not true that lots of money is wasted on mediocre research. Cable’s claim is so far off the mark, it is laughable. It is hard to say whether this is an honest mistake or an effort to soften up the scientific community for the blows that will fall in next month’s spending round.
As Professor Steve Smith, President of Universities UK, said in a speech this morning: “It is a matter of regret to me that the Secretary of State made these comments for two reasons; first that he made these fundamental errors, secondly that this is potentially damaging for the reputation of UK research.”