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December 20, 2010

Knowledge transfer wins, capital budgets hit in science budget allocations

by Brian Owens

The government today announced detailed spending plans for the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the seven UK Research Councils for the period 2011-12 to 2014-15.

The plans were unveiled by universities and science minister David Willetts at a briefing in London this morning. As expected, they amount to a 12 per cent budget cut in cash terms over four years.

Almost all of the seven research councils have announced capital spending budgets cuts as much as 50 per cent. The plans also indicate a stronger focus towards funding research that meets UK strategic policy priorities and a move towards yet more concentration.

However, there are rewards for researchers working in knowledge transfer. The Medical Research Council will be able to keep its patent income and there is also protection for the popular Higher Education Innovation Fund. The Science and Technology Facilities Council meanwhile has been able protect its budget for international activities from currency fluctuations.

The STFC’s budget has been split into three streams for the spending review period, meaning that in future its “grants” pot will no longer need to be raided to meet currency-related shortfalls in its international subscriptions.

The Natural Environment Research Council will place less emphasis on participation in international scientific projects, instead devoting much more space to spelling out how the research council will meet national objectives, such as building competitive advantage for the UK.

The Economic and Social Research Council said that it would deal with the cut by scrapping a small grants scheme and concentrating grant support on large projects costing more than £200,000.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is concentrating its resources on four main themes—manufacturing, energy, the digital economy and healthcare technologies.

The MRC is the only one of the UK’s seven research councils to receive an increase in funding, which when taking into account inflation should result in a real-terms freeze over the next four years.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council is to address its funding reduction by channelling more money than ever before into cross-council priorities, critical mass within universities and the pursuit of ‘impact’.

Meanwhile, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has confirmed plans to cut its own administration costs by 25 per cent. This will partly be achieved through attempts to reduce demand for grants by capping the number of applications allowed from institutions or departments that “fall consistently below an appropriately modelled percentile,” says the delivery plan. The council says it will seek a reduction in applications of at least 10 per cent.

November 11, 2010

Impact pilot recommends only minor tweaks to HEFCE plans

by Brian Owens

The pilot exercise to test the Higher Education Funding Council for England's plans to assess economic and social impact in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework has reported back, and on the whole the people who took part—at least those who chaired the evaluation panels—are satisfied that it works.

This will certainly be a relief to HEFCE, who have faced harsh criticism over the past year from academics implacably opposed to impact assessment , though in some cases that ire would have been better directed at the research councils.

The pilot panel chairs did recommed some changes to make the system work better. They want the weighting given to the impact element to be reduced from the planned 25 per cent, at least for the first go-round, until everyone gets used to it. This is a sesible suggestion, which universities and learned societies have also been pushing for, and one that HEFCE is sympathetic to. It will almost certainly be heeded.

Continue reading "Impact pilot recommends only minor tweaks to HEFCE plans" »

October 20, 2010

Science safe from major cuts?

by Brian Owens

The news broke yesterday evening that the UK's £4.6 billion science budget would be protected from cuts in today's comprehensive spending review. The Times, The Guardian, the BBC and the Financial Times all carried various versions of the story.

A flat cash settlement—that is, no changes to the science budget—for the next four years is probably about the best outcome the science community could hope for, but it still amounts to a 10 per cent cut over the four years once inflation is taken into account.

Given that researchers were bracing themselves for cuts of up to 25 per cent, and had taken to the streets in protest, this will be seen as a victory. But there are still questions left unanswered.

Continue reading "Science safe from major cuts?" »

October 13, 2010

The papers on Browne

by Brian Owens

All of the major newspapers have responded to the Browne review of university finance on their editorial pages today. Most were generally in favour of Browne’s plans—with the notable exception of The Daily Mail. Here’s a round-up of what they said:

The Guardian

The lefty paper accepts the necessity of higher fees, and appreciates Browne’s attempt to protect poorer students.

“The Liberal Democrats, who were in denial about higher education's financial problems at the election, have been forced to make a rapid U-turn to an uncomfortable reality.”

Continue reading "The papers on Browne" »

September 14, 2010

Book launch debacle a blow to Ireland's scientific reputation

by Brian Owens

***From our Ireland correspondent, Dick Ahlstrom***

Ireland’s science minister Conor Lenihan has been in the wars over the past few days, all over a simple book launch planned for Wednesday 15 September. But while the launch was straightforward enough the book wasn’t, a tome declaring that evolution is nothing more than a fantasy and a hoax.

The Origin of Specious Nonsense by John J May is a rambling, pointless book that purports to smash the “theory” of evolution. It readily disregards the abundance of scientific research across many disciplines that shows quite clearly that evolution is not a theory but accepted mainstream science. Even the Catholic Church readily agrees, but not Mr May. Enough said.

Lenihan started a firestorm of tweets, emails and news copy after he accepted an invitation to attend and speak at the book launch, hardly an event warranting the involvement of the government’s science minister. Lenihan declared he was attending not as minister but as a friend of the author and the local member of the Irish parliament.

Just as things started to heat up May withdrew his invitation, claiming the abuse levelled at Lenihan was unfair. The junior minister readily accepted the dis-invitation and will now retreat, left to consider whether the loss of an evening out in his constituency was worth a possible threat to his continuance as a minister.

If for no other reason he should have been scared off by the evening’s description as a “Gorillas and Girls” event with Charles Darwin and King Kong on hand to lend their support. One can only wonder what lasting effect this stunt might have on Ireland’s reputation abroad as a good place to do science.

July 15, 2010

New REF timeline

by Brian Owens

HEFCE has announced the new time frame for the Research Excellence Framework, after science minister David Willetts confirmed last week that it would be delayed for a year to give HEFCE and academics more time to design an acceptable way to measure the social and economic impact of research.

Here is the revised REF timetable:

July 2010 – Announce panel structure and start recruitment of expert panels
September 2010 – Deadline for applications for sub panel chairs
October 2010 – Deadline for nominating panel members
November 2010 – Impact pilot exercise report and events
December 2010 – Panel recruitment completed
Early 2011 – Panels begin meeting
Mid 2011 – Panels consult on criteria
Mid 2011 – Guidance on submissions published
Late 2011 – Panel criteria and methods published
Early 2013 – Submission system operational
Late 2013 – Submissions deadline
2014 – Assessment phase
December 2014 – Outcomes published
2015 – Outcomes will be used for research funding allocations

July 09, 2010

Thoughts on David Willetts' speech at the RI

by Brian Owens

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.

Continue reading "Thoughts on David Willetts' speech at the RI" »

June 10, 2010

Coalition contortions

by Brian Owens

Today, we got our first indication of how the coalition government, or at least the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, will deal with the tricky issues on which the Lib Dem and Conservative partners disagree.

Universities minister David Willetts gave a speech at Oxford Brookes University this afternoon on the funding of higher education, following his widely reported remarks to The Guardian that the cost of so many students on degree courses were a "burden on the taxpayer", widely interpreted as hint that tuition fees were likely to rise. Fees are, of course, one of the major sources of conflict between the two coalition partners, with the Lib Dems securing the right to abstain from any vote on raising them.

So when we asked to see the text of Willetts' speech, BIS had to go through some painful contortions to demonstrate that Willetts' boss Vince Cable was not a party to any of the sentiments expressed. First, we were told that it was a "political" speech, so the BIS press office could not provide it and would have to pass our request on to Willetts' special adviser Nick Hillman (this despite the fact that it was the BIS press office that alerted us to the speech, and invited us to attend). Then, when the text arrived, the name at the top was "the Rt Hon David Willetts MP"—no mention of his ministerial job. And the BIS press release on the event does not include the full text or a video of the speech as it would for a "non-political" speech.

The speech itself is fairly tame (Download a copy of it here)—no repeat of the "burden" comment—generally criticizing the existing fees regime but not really suggesting what a future one might look like. But it is an indication of how sensitive the issue is within the coalition that these efforts are made to keep some distance between the two partners, even within the same department.

The real fun, though, will start when the Browne review reports this autumn.

May 18, 2010

Meet the press with David Willetts

by Brian Owens

David Willetts came face to face with London’s science press corps today at the Science Media Centre. Compared to his predecessor Paul Drayson, he comes across as less energetic and enthusiastic, more considered and cerebral. You can see where he got his nickname “Two Brains”.

Willetts seems interested in how the scientific method can be applied to policy across government. The scientific mindset, he said, was one of the most important shared ways of thinking that we have. Using scientific evidence, he said, was one of the best ways to reach out to the public across ideological, religious and cultural lines. I wonder if he’s tried telling that to David Nutt.

Of course, with the government’s first £6 billion in cuts to be announced next Monday, what we really wanted him to talk about was money. Will he fight to protect science funding from cuts? The short answer to that: no.

"The problem is that the state of the public finances is particularly vulnerable," he said. "Even in the boom years, too much of public spending was based on borrowing. The country is facing a very severe fiscal problem, so we can't exempt science from scrutiny. The boom is at an end, now we have to figure out how to manage through a very painful process."

It seems that science, despite its vital importance to the rebalancing of the economy, can expect no special favours.

As he has only been in the job a few days, Willetts had little to say about specific policies. He did say he understood the “crucial importance” of blue-skies research, and repeated his scepticism of the plan to measure the impact of research in the Research Excellence Framework, so that is likely to be heavily diluted, or dropped altogether. He wants to reduce the amount of time academics have to devote to things like the REF, which is commendable, but the last time someone tried that we ended up with a revolt over bibliometrics.

Saying that the last thing Whitehall needed was another reorganisation, Willetts hinted that the research councils would be left largely untouched in any quango cull, though the ones dealing with skills should watch out.

All in all, it seems we have an interesting science minister for interesting times.

May 12, 2010

Lords reform – would it be bad for science?

by Brian Owens

The BBC is reporting that one of the concessions the Liberal Democrats have extracted from the Conservatives as the price for their participation in the coalition government is an immediate reform of the House of Lords.

The reforms would reportedly create a fully elected upper chamber, elected by a system of proportional representation. This would, of course, be a step forward for democracy in the mother of all parliaments. It seems bizarre, to say the least, that in 2010 there are still a few peers who owe their position to the circumstances of their birth or the fact that they are a Bishop in the Church of England.

But could this proposed reform have a sting in the tail for science and research?

Just before the election, I commented on the retirement of so many science advocates in the House of Commons. With the defeat of Liberal Democrat science spokesman Evan Harris, the picture is even grimmer. A few of the new faces look promising, but science will never be a major issue in the Commons.

Would an elected House of Lords do any better? As it stands now, there are several eminent scientists who are peers, including zoologist John Krebs, Royal Society president Martin Rees, and neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, who make important contributions to debates on science issues. Would any of them be interested in standing for election?

Losing the ability to appoint peers could also hamper the government’s ability to fill gaps in important, but sometimes-technical policy areas such as science. Over the past 13 years, the two most effective science ministers, David Sainsbury and Paul Drayson, have both been Lords. And Peter Mandelson’s return as business secretary was smoothed by his peerage.

It would be a shame to lose this ability to appoint competent technocrats to roles such as science minister. Few ambitious MPs see the role as a useful stepping-stone to higher office, but it was a perfect fit for someone like Drayson, who had a genuine passion for the issues but little interest in party politics.

We will have to wait and see what the coalition government has in mind, but if the reforms do come into force, the science community will just have to hope that enough competent and interested people choose to run for election in both houses to ensure a healthy level of scientific debate in parliament.

Brian Owens


Brian Owens is assistant news editor at Nature and a former news editor of Research Fortnight and Research Europe.