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July 09, 2010

Thoughts on David Willetts' speech at the RI

There were a couple of interesting things to come out of science minister David Willetts' speech at the Royal Institution today. He confirmed that the Research Excellence Framework would be delayed for a year while Hefce sorts out how to measure impact in a way that wont cause a mass revolt in the universities. But we already knew that was coming. More interesting were his comments on the concentration of research funding, and the economic arguements for government investment in science.

Let's take concentration first. In the speech, Willetts said he was in favour of concentrating funding on excellent research. But (sorry Russell Group) he said "excellence is to be found in individual departments". At a press briefing before the speech, he went even further, saying concentration was "not a matter for entire universities". So it would seem Willetts is backing the 'islands of excellence' funding model preferred by the smaller and newer universities, rather than the suggestion, put forward by the Russell Group's chairman and Leeds VC Michael Arthur, that the government should just give all of its research cash to 30 or so big players.

This will be a disappointment for the big universities, who may have been hoping that their excellent reputations would help them escape the coming cuts. But for a coalition government that has made "fairness" a watchword, that would simply be unacceptable. George Osborne has said we're all in this together, and Willetts has just shown that this applies to Oxford and Cambridge too.

Second, Willetts had some interesting things to say about how he would go about argueing the case for science funding to the Treasury. He would have to make strong economic arguements, he said. Treasury officals are unlikely to be impressed with the fact that a UK researcher got there first (and he should know, he used to be one). “What does it matter economically that we should be first or that something should be discovered by a Brit? What exactly is the economic problem if the next scientific discoveries originate overseas, rather than here?” he asked.

Instead, the UK needs “good enough science so that we have the capacity to tackle a new problem, to react effectively to scientific breakthroughs however or wherever they may arise, and to capitalise on those breakthroughs via research programmes and business initiatives of our own”, he said.

This doesn't necessarily mean the UK shouldn't be doing cutting edge research - in advanced fields, we'll need to be at least at the same level as the foreign scientists whose work we want to exploit - but as a philosophy it is unlikely to go over too well in the science community. Initial reactions on the social networking site Twitter were rather sceptical.

Willetts is, at least, convinced of  the importance of funding research to help rebuild the economy, but when he and Vince Cable go before the Treasury 'Star Camber' later this summer to fight for their budget, he won't be relying on the romantic notion that the UK should be a world leader in science. The bean counters will want something more substantial than that.

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