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Have your say: how should the government invest capital for scientific research?

By ucyow3c, on 7 May 2014

pencil-icon  Written by Cher Thornhill

The Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science, recently visited UCL to deliver a talk entitled, ‘New opportunities for science capital’.

After negotiating my way around protesting students, I gained entry to UCL’s Darwin Lecture Theatre, which dissolved the tense, edgy atmosphere with a gentle, studious calm.

Rt Hon David Willetts

Rt Hon David Willetts MP

Recurrent spend
When it comes to government science spending, the major recurrent spend includes money for:research councils (RCs), the higher education funding council for England (HEFCE), learned societies and Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF).

Mr Willetts began his talk by hailing the coalition’s commitment to such spending. “We’ve not just maintained a £4.6 billion science ring fence but are now modestly increasing it,” said Willetts, who added that the research council budget allocations had been announced earlier that day.

Capital revival
In the current age of austerity, the government has also made a long-term commitment to increase capital investment in science and research to £1.1 billion in 2015–2016 and to grow it in line with inflation each year to 2020–2021, Willett added.

“Total science and research spending is at the highest level it’s been in recorded science-spend history,” he said proudly. In addition to the recurrent spending, £5.8 billion – almost a quarter of the ring-fenced amount – has been allocated to capital investment in science and research over the next five years.

In possible allegiance with his audience, Willetts recognised the powerful economic arguments for the value of science and research, but said he feels there is more to it: “The economic value comes in handy, but science also has value in its own right.”

Over history, commissioning of scientific research has been based on a mixture of views from both academics – following the Haldane Principle – and politicians, I learned.

Decision process?
I was fascinated to hear the minister explain the principles behind government decision-making, which have often appeared arbitrary and even uninformed to myself and others.

The Haldane Principle was supposedly derived from Lord Haldane’s 1918 report on the machinery of government, which was written after the First World War, when research funding was largely dedicated to the war effort.

The principle suggests that commissioning be based on scientific independence.

Willetts said the principle is “complied with rigorously” and quoted the words of Margaret Thatcher, who was a research chemist before a prime minister.

When her colleagues showed scepticism towards funding the Large Hadron Collider, Thatcher scanned and approved the scribbled submission as she remarked, “Yes, but isn’t it interesting?”

Priority investment options
Perhaps the greatest attraction of the talk was its consideration of the priorities for major capital investment within the science and research landscape.

To start things off, Willetts presented a list of priority projects, organised into topics: big data, large-scale international projects (eg. Large Hadron Collider new capability, International Space Station Exploitation Programme); understanding the universe; understanding our own planet; how materials behave (which apparently involves research of neutron and synchrotron capability); and grand challenge projects (eg. the National Nuclear Users Facility).

Sharing decisions
As well as revealing the candidate projects for funding, Willetts asked us (the audience) to consider:

  • What balance should be struck between local (individual/institution-based) projects and large nationwide or international projects?
  • What should the UK’s priorities be for large-scale capital investments in the national interest (including international collaboration where necessary)?

He said the talk was part of a wider aim “to involve the public more” in the funding decisions for science capital through the consultation Creating the Future: A 2020 Vision for Science & Research.

One particularly interesting point he made was the idea of cross-party discussions about the big issue of funding for scientific research – something that he foresaw might enable a more continuous thread of funding decisions, which has great potential to reduce wasted time and money.

Willetts then shared with us some criteria proposed to help consider which projects to invest in and asked for our input. These included:

  • affordability (capital and resource budget given non-science commitments)
  • excellence (funding for world-leading research facilities to strengthen research excellence – our nation’s competitive edge)
  • impact (investing in capital infrastructure enhances both research and the economy)
  • skills (investment in equipment and facilities supplies the economy with highly skilled people and early adopters of technology)
  • efficiency and leverage (considering the impact on efficiency for the nation’s workforce, and attraction of leveraged funding via charities and businesses)

Finally, the minister invited questions from the floor. This opened discussion on the role that businesses and charities can play in joint funding with government.

He described a partnership that the government offers where university funding is met two-fold by business partners. He also said to a representative from the charity sector that highlighting a specific problem that needs tackling is enough in itself to apply for funding from the government, if the charity is willing to invest a significant proportion too.

Encouraging such dual investment was part of the purpose for the open talk, as well as encouraging public views on appropriate capital investment.

The talk was clearly a public relations exercise. From my point at least, it was highly successful. For those of you will real interest, it would be great if we put ideas forward for the best application of capital funding for scientific research.

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