The House of Lords Science & Technology Committee is looking at what government long-term priorities for UK science should be ahead of the new Science and Innovation Strategy, to be published this Autumn. The Royal Society will give evidence on Tuesday 8 July.
Government has established a Ministerial Advisory Group of representatives from across the research community to inform the Strategy and is also consulting over how to spend the £1.1 billion per year allocated up to 2020/21 for investment in capital projects. This consultation closes on Friday 4 July.
Ahead of the Strategy’s publication, the Lord’s Committee is taking their own look at what the national priorities should be for scientific research and where public funds should be directed. They are also exploring what more the government could do to support science and innovation, seeking views from across the research community.
On Tuesday 1 July, the Committee heard from Dr Sarah Main, Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Professor Graeme Reid, Professor of Science and Research Policy at UCL and former Head of Research Funding at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), and Kevin Baughan, Director of Technology and Innovation at the Technology Strategy Board.
Key themes included:
- Getting the length of the strategy right – the need to both develop a long-term strategy that provides a stable direction of travel, but also allows flexibility to respond to scientific progress. The panel felt that strategy should focus on providing the overarching tools and principles to guide decisions, rather than attempting to be too prescriptive over future challenges that by their nature are unpredictable. The discussion also touched on the value of developing a cross-party consensus to ensure stability into the next government, recognising that a considerable amount of consensus already exists in this area.
- Encompassing the whole ecosystem – the panel felt that the strategy should not focus only on government funding for research but take a broader view of the whole ecosystem and how the different players interact including private and charitable research investment, the European and international stage.
- The challenge of making the case for investing in research – the discussion touched on the need to make the case for investment in research across government, not just in BIS. However the speakers recognised considerable challenges in doing so. Research has a ‘long-horizon’ problem i.e. the returns of research are not immediate but can take decades to be realised. This creates challenges in making the case for funding research. The Campaign for Science and Engineering’s recent economic analysis was mentioned but concerns were also raised about going too far down this path – ie, not to make research funding decisions based solely on the economic case.
- Capital investment – recognising that decisions over capital funding are by their nature long-term and less flexible, the discussion focused on the need to develop robust decision-making processes, as opposed to the more ad hoc investment that has taken place over recent years. There was also a call to recognise that entering a research field through capital investment signals a long-term commitment.
- Nurturing the next generation of talent – a theme which arose repeatedly throughout the discussion was the need to nurture the next generation of talent. The panel felt it is important to better understand how to create an environment where individuals can flourish and deliver this through the strategy.
- Crowding in – there was a lot of talk about the relationship between public and other funding for research or ‘crowding in’: the idea that changes in public funding are amplified by other funders, so where public funding increases, investment by other funders also increases, and the opposite effect occurring when public investment is reduced. Kevin Baughan reported that early progress on the Technology Strategy Board’s Catapult centres was positive, exceeding their initial objectives for attracting further investment.
- The need to be ambitious – there was a very positive message that the UK has the potential for research excellence in many areas and we should not hold back from setting ambitious plans to attract greater investment in R&D across the ecosystem.