UK’s science funding model weak in supporting business growth, says former science minister

By on 03/05/2016
Lord Willetts, speaking to the Strand Group at King's College London. Photo: David Tett

The UK’s concentration on university-led scientific research has created a system less able to support business growth and government policymaking than those in Germany and other big competitor nations, Britain’s former minister of state for universities and science Lord Willetts said last week.

Highlighting Britain’s declining support for public sector research institutes (PSREs) outside the higher education sector, Willetts – who held the universities and science portfolio from 2010 to 2014 – argued that “we have thinned out too much the network of intermediate organisations that could help businesses in particular sectors or with particular technologies.”

“And what a contrast with Germany,” he added, arguing that their research institutes “help – year in, year out – German industries to innovate, apply new technologies… They can set themselves technical challenges and use public and private money to do it. We’re just not organised like that.”

Speaking at an event held on 28 April by the Strand Group – part of the Policy Institute at King’s College London – Willetts said: “I regard this as a public policy failure, and I’m as culpable as anyone else: Britain, for the last 30 years, has not provided an environment in which PSREs can thrive and prosper.”

The UK’s channelling of scientific research funding through the universities, he explained, means that “for a relatively modest amount of money, we get an extraordinary range of high-quality academic research. For a £4.7bn science budget, to get the citation rate we do is quite extraordinary”.

But because universities tend to focus on cutting-edge research, new research methods and unexplored topics, channelling funding through the universities produces research with fewer direct practical applications than commissioning work from PSREs: “How do you win funding for research? How do you get promoted if you’re a university academic? By excellent articles in peer-reviewed journals. That is the competitive model that determines performance for the vast bulk of our R&D spend,” he argued. “If that’s what you want, our system is perfectly tuned to doing that; it isn’t very well tuned to achieving other objectives.”

Meanwhile, government departments have cut scientific and research budgets, weakening their ability to commission work to support policymaking or appraise the effectiveness of past policies. As a minister taking policy decisions, said Willetts, it “would be good to know what’s working and what’s not working. But that [kind of research] isn’t how you get promotion as a professor.”

By contrast with this “thoroughbred” system, he added, Germany has a “carthorse” model. “We’ve got all our eggs in the university basket. [Germany] have a lot of their research in a non-university location.” R&D spending through universities as a proportion of GDP is broadly similar in Germany, the USA and the UK, he pointed out; but the UK’s R&D spending by government departments is about a third of that in Germany and the USA, and its R&D spending by businesses is 50-70% of that in the other two countries.

“The British model scores very highly on autonomy,” Willetts concluded, “but it scores low on application, because we haven’t got much money spent on that and we haven’t got many incentives that reward that. It scores very highly on the international rankings of university performance, but it doesn’t particularly deliver innovation.”

 

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About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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