If you are a scientist and you want some money to spend on research, as part of the grant application you have to write a case for support. It has to be good. You need to describe why the problem you are working on is important and to explain, in considerable detail, what you hope to do and how you will go about achieving it. To maximise your chances of funding, you need to link your work to the existing literature in the field of enquiry and to describe the preliminary experiments you have already done as evidence that you can deliver on your promises. Actually, forget about good. These days, the case for support has to be brilliant. It has to be water-tight.
If you are in politics, things work a bit differently.
I went along to the Policy Exchange Centre in Westminster this morning to listen to David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, make a speech about new science policies that aim to ensure the UK has a future in high tech that will boost economic growth.
In some ways it was a good speech but, as a working scientist, it also struck me as odd. Willetts made several bold proposals but failed to accompany them with a case for support.
The centrepiece was the announcement that, to stimulate growth and innovation in the university sector, the government is inviting proposals for “new types of university with a focus on science and on postgraduates”. However, it is not offering any new funding for the consortia of cities, regions, universities and businesses that, it is imagined, might put together a bid, so the incentives for these consortia are not clear. In questions following the speech the minister was not able to offer much further clarification. The government will wait and see what sorts of proposals come forward. In scientific grant applications, this sort of speculative approach is known as a ‘fishing exercise’ and is almost never funded.
Willetts made two further announcements, first of the ambition to have more UK universities in the world’s top 100 institutions and then of a second ambition to increase university knowledge exchange income from external sources — industrial investment in university research — by 10%. Both ambitions are entirely laudable but how are they to be realised? No case was made.
This lack of substance, coupled with repeated reminders throughout the speech that times are tough, gave the impression that the only ideas we can afford at the moment are those that don’t cost any money.
That may well be the truth of the matter.
But I don’t want to focus just on the negatives. Sniping is easy and so, generally, unproductive. It is probably unfair to compare the scientist’s lot with the politician’s and there’s no doubt that science policy is difficult. That’s worth conceding. Willetts may have been given little to work with in terms of new resources but I did sense a genuine determination to acknowledge the value of science and to tackle the knotty problem of how to exploit the UK’s known scientific strengths to infuse new vitality into the economy.
Maybe I am guilty to being too sanguine but the government gets some credit for declaring the intent to maintain Britain as a centre of world-class research. They will get more credit for this intention when it is backed by a greater percentage GDP spend on R&D — to take us more in line with our major competitors — (and, parenthetically, by more consistent policies on university funding and immigration) but that is an argument for better economic times.
For now we may have to content ourselves with measures that are cheap and effective. Despite my reservations about the announcements discussed above, there were other elements of policy mentioned in the speech that appear to have more substance. I appreciated Willetts’ frankness about the role of government in directing research. He was clear about preserving the Haldane principle, that funding decisions should be made by peer review, but nevertheless recognised that the government cannot avoid making spending choices about technology investment that necessarily affect strategies for scientific funding (for example, which types of energy production to support).
Such choices are not easy and Willetts was at least honest enough to concede that the government might not always get them right. More of that type of candour in political life would be no bad thing. The coalition may even do better than previous administrations on such decisions thanks to the commitment to get science advisers into every government department.
In the same vein, Willetts’ description of ‘leadership councils’, ad hoc groupings of science and technology experts charged with advising on particular technology sectors — new councils on e-infrastructure and synthetic biology were announced today — seemed to me a sensible move, provided that, as Willetts was at pains to point out, the latitude for blue skies research is not seriously impaired by the identification of more strategic goals.
Finally, the minister also addressed the long-standing issue of Britain’s relatively poor performance at converting its scientific excellence into industrial and commercial prowess, especially when compared to Germany and the US. In contrast to the case made for some of his earlier pronouncements, Willetts went into considerable depth in trying to analyse possible reasons for this discrepancy and mentioned proposals for birding the gap, including the Bio-medical Catalyst Fund (announced in December 2011) and the re-introduction of Smart awards under the control of the Technology Strategy Board (to provide proof of concept and proof of market funding for businesses). I won’t attempt to critique his analysis at this late hour (notwithstanding the fact that the cultural and economic issues are strangers to me) but hope that others might do so because it is an interesting problem and I would like to know if the case for support stands up.