It’s All about Science Policy this Week: the Good and the Bad

There has been much activity on what could loosely be termed ‘Science Policy’ this week, including both the long-awaited/significantly delayed BIS Science and Innovation (S+I) Strategy document (entitled, optimistically ‘Our plan for growth’) and the outcome of the REF2014. I will leave discussion of the latter for another day when the dust has settled. Into this heady mix of headline-grabbing stories, the Royal Society today (for reasons outside our control and which make the timing definitely regrettable) has published a brief document ‘Doctoral students’ career expectations: principles and responsibilitiessetting out what different individuals and structures ought to be doing to make PhD students’ life as constructive and productive as possible: in other words ‘who is responsible for what’. As chair of the Royal Society Higher Education Working Group that has been looking at the doctoral landscape, my thoughts on the document are posted today over at In Verba, the Royal Society’s policy blog, and cross-posted below. But I’d like to offer additional thoughts written after this initial blogpost in the light of the S+I document but which tie in with the HE work we have been doing. These thoughts, however, are very much my own and do not reflect anyone else’s within the Royal Society. So, my personal reflections first.

The S+I document was due to be published at the start of last week. It was delayed for reasons not publicly available. Rumours are rife. To publish it on a day when every senior university leader/manager/administrator in the country was poring over their still-embargoed REF results seems curious if maximum impact was intended. So, as others have suggested, was this a good day to bury bad news? Actually, in the most part it is hard to read bad news into a document which is full of enthusiasm for science, loosely interpreted. (Somewhere, early on, the report does say that for science read ‘the natural, physical and social sciences, engineering, technology, the arts and humanities‘. I doubt those working in areas other than STEM would have felt their disciplines were adequately covered; my Twitter feed confirmed their annoyance.)

So, lots of enthusiasm for science but surprisingly little new content would be my summary analysis of seventy odd pages of text (plus another 35 of ‘evidence’); almost certainly not enough imagination or determination (or cash) actually to counter the challenges the UK faces, despite their attempt to put a positive spin on every metric they could lay their hands on. Most of the actions envisaged, including cash injections, are not announced here for the first time, although the paper pulls different strands together to make a positive statement of intent. Positive, but not really to the tune of making a difference in the nation’s investment in R+D which is noted to be significantly below the OECD average – and falling ever lower – currently standing at a mere 1.72% of GDP.

The one statement that is totally new is the, perhaps surprising one that Sir Paul Nurse will ‘lead a review with the Research Councils in order to build on their firm foundations‘. A review ‘with’ is presumably meant as a review ‘of’, yet it is only just over a year since their last triennial review. Why is a new one needed? One has to hope that this isn’t simply about more efficiency savings, or about top-slicing for new dollops of investment into areas that Research Councils would not (otherwise) support or to build up new swathes of research institutes operating outside the university system. University research is strong (as the REF2014 announcements make clear) and it would be a shame if we headed off to create a new breed of institutes just as countries like France are winding their’s down to make their research base more like the UK’s.

There have been those in the community, spotted again through my Twitterfeed and also reported in Research Fortnight, who suggest Paul is conflicted when it comes to heading up this review, because he is head of the new Crick Institute, which might be a beneficiary if top-slicing of the science base funding were to occur. If this take on things ends up as a general view, and it is easy to see why it might, then the review will be fatally tainted in the same way as we have seen in other recent Government reviews (e.g. on historic child abuse). If the country is to have this review then it is crucial that the community buys into its conclusions or, far from happily delivering efficiency savings it will at best be seen as a waste of time and money and possibly something rather worse.

There have already been various manifestations of the aforementioned dollops of cash identified, many of which are listed in the S+I plan. These include the recently-announced £235M to set up the Sir Henry Royce Institute (aka the Crick of the North) for Materials research based in Manchester and the smaller lump sum for the AlanTuring Institute to be based at the British Library. Without wishing to denigrate either of these activities and the people who will work there, I am curious to know how the decisions to locate these centres have been taken, or indeed the rationale for creating such new institutes.

The Government of late, not least of course the CSA Sir Mark Walport, has discussed the importance of evidence-based policy and one has to hope they sought an appropriate evidence base on which to base the decisions about these massive cash injections. The rumours floating around HEIs and other organisations might suggest this has not necessarily been the case, and there appear to have been interesting tensions at both the personal and departmental levels playing out. We absolutely need to have a funding regime which is palpably transparent and one in which the research community can have total confidence. Not so long ago there was quite a revolt against the EPSRC over some of their policies, notably Shaping Capabilities, and it was immensely damaging for individuals and for science. If wider loss of confidence in our funding masters occurs the scientific community will be in a very unhappy place. The Haldane Principle is discussed at some length in the S+I report. It points out that its original appearance in print stated that the ‘choice of how and by whom [that] research should be conducted should be left to the decision of experts‘. That is usually translated as the Research Councils and their system of governance and peer review, but of course ‘experts’ could be other people such as Government advisors. Whatever and whoever, complete trust in these experts is all important.

The one place where I believe a review of the operation of the Research Councils, collectively not one by one, could really play a part is in looking at the entire landscape in a seamless way. As I have written about previously, and as I frequently discuss with the Research Councils themselves, I believe too much falls through the cracks and the totality of what is done is not looked at enough. This isn’t a plea for a single research council, which would probably cause far more problems than it solves, but it is a plea for much more effective cross-council working, something that the last Triennial review did indeed highlight as needing attention. This applies not just to research grants but also to funding of students, hence the tie-in with the work regarding training of PhD students that the Royal Society has just carried out.

In the course of the HE working group’s work, we started to look at the distribution of studentships between areas – both disciplinary and geographical. This information turns out to be surprisingly hard to access reliably and in detail, but what is clear is that the move towards Doctoral Training Centres/Partnerships etc (according to the terminology of different funders) means that the landscape is getting blotchy. There may be many people studying Applied Rocket Widgetry in Scotland and none in Wales; there may be no one studying Theoretical Knotting or Caterpillar Camouflage anywhere because these are subjects which haven’t been allocated a centre; project and committee studentships have long since vanished. Is this healthy? Should we, as a nation, worry that for the next 5 years we have picked (at least in the case of the EPSRC with which I am most familiar) ‘winners’ of subjects and universities and there is little room left for new activities to blossom, albeit there is still a little money left in central departmental allocations? I worry that we are simply losing flexibility – or ‘agility’ as the S+I report likes to describe it.

That is perhaps a rather longer lead-in than I intended to my actual, original blogpost about the Principles and Responsibilities document the Royal Society HE Group produced. There is much food for thought in what has been produced this week and in the processes by which the outcomes have been decided. Now, here is my original text on the HE working group’s paper.

Expectations for All

This post first appeared at In Verba and is cross-posted with permission.

Research students embarking on a PhD do so for many reasons and with different degrees of understanding of what they are letting themselves in for. Equally, supervisors of research students have a wide range of different attitudes and aptitudes towards supervision. Sometimes there is a mismatch of expectations. When this happens students can find themselves disillusioned, unhappy and let down by a system that doesn’t always seem to have their best interests very high up the agenda. Universities themselves, and their careers services, also have responsibilities in managing expectations and delivering support and advice.

Recognizing the possibilities for a mismatch of expectations, the Royal Society has published a brief document ‘Doctoral students’ career expectations: principles and responsibilities’ spelling out who should take responsibility for what. Undoubtedly there is more that universities can do in setting out the framework within which research should be carried out. Students must not be regarded as mere ‘bench monkeys’, but nor should they themselves be passive in seeking out what they need; certain responsibilities fall on them as others fall on the supervisors and the institution itself.

As Chair of the working group that has produced this document, I was unsure how it would be received by ‘stakeholders’ i.e. representatives of all the different parties to whom it potentially could apply. The Royal Society hosted a series of stakeholder meetings to test the waters before finalising the text. I was heartened by the enthusiasm with which the group I saw – senior university managers and people working in careers services – greeted our words. It seemed that university managers felt they tried to promote ideas of responsibility to both supervisors and students, but that their words too often fell on deaf ears or carried no weight, not least because it was ‘managers’ saying these things. It is to be hoped the external voice of the Royal Society may carry more authority, because these messages are of fundamental importance for the well-being of the research base. I understand representatives from the researcher community also felt it gave greater clarity as to what they could and should be asking for from the systems in which they worked and so would make it easier for students to voice their concerns.

Research students need to know what too many seem to want not to know, that doing a PhD is not an automatic passport to a lifetime in academia. For many, that isn’t what they want to do anyhow. It depends on discipline – engineers are less likely to expect or wish to stay in academia than biologists, for instance – but it is unfortunately too simplistic to believe if you get a PhD there is a faculty position waiting for you. If you query that, look at Figure 1.6 in the Royal Society’s report The Scientific Century. The precise numbers are difficult to establish, but the overall shape of the pipeline feeding through from research student to professor is not in doubt. Few make it. So, it is vital that students pick up other skills, look to broaden their CVs and gain a breadth of experience during their PhD’s – and that they are facilitated, not obstructed, when they try to do so. Failing to gain such skills they may not be well-placed to find jobs outside academia.

In what I write above I by no means intend to imply that academia should be the destination of choice. I absolutely don’t believe that, although it is a message too many students can receive during their training. As a nation we so often desperately need, but lack, scientifically-trained individuals in a huge variety of spheres ranging from politics to the media. I would love to see a world in which experienced scientists were valued in such milieus and that students actively sought such opportunities out. These are messages that our higher education institutions and the supervisors themselves should be giving out throughout a PhD programme.

I hope that readers across the spectrum (students, supervisors, careers services and Deans and Pro Vice-Chancellors) will look at this document and consider what they individually need to do to improve the climate in which students carry out their research. PhD students are an invaluable intellectual resource for our nation and must not be squandered or hindered. Whatever their future destination we need to ensure their time is not wasted or limited during their PhDs and that they can maximise their talents and skills for everyone’s future benefit, most particularly their own.


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One Response to It’s All about Science Policy this Week: the Good and the Bad

  1. Stephen Moss says:

    It looks as though, like me, you failed to find much of substance in the 78 pages of government blurb about science and innovation. Lots of warm words and pats on the back for science and scientists, a surprisingly frank admission that the UK does not support research to the level of many of our competitors, but no sign at all of any improvement to the over-stretched RC budget. I agree with your comments regarding the RC review by Paul Nurse. This also raised my suspicions, and I can’t help but wonder whether there isn’t a subtext to the aims of this review. It has been widely publicised that BIS is likely to face a £3-£4bn budget cut after the next election. Could it be that Paul has been asked to explore the consequences of a RC budget cut (as if the four year freeze wasn’t damaging enough already). If you look at where BIS spends its £13bn budget, it’s difficult to see how the RCs could emerge from such blood letting unscathed.

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