The Case for Support

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.

David Willetts (Jan 2012)

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.




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18 Responses to The Case for Support

  1. Great post Stephen, I hope indeed Britain does come up for some money this way. I am personally a bit worried because again they just seem to be *saying* things without a case for support – similar to that Start-Up Britain idea to support new up and coming business. However being in their current position, the UK government, I guess they have to try and encourage somehow with nothing. As a short term measure perhaps they could just stop all VAT on university research (I know this already happens for Medical Research but it doesn’t for all sciences) – this might at least give some of the 10% savings Willetts wants to see. Or maybe even by giving VAT discounts to companies which are willing to invest in scientific research? Just a couple of off the cuff ideas….

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Sylvia. The VAT idea is a good one but I imagine would not get treasury support.

      Funding is important but the policy framework also has to be sorted out. That’s why, although there were several nice but cooky ideas in the speech, I did think there was some evidence of thought, at least about how to get industry to access the science base.

  2. Great post, Stephen. Thanks for the analysis.

  3. rpg says:

    I think—and I could be way off base here—that such a speech serves two purposes. The first is rallying the troops, trying to convince people like you, with rhetoric, that the current administration is serious about science. This in part could be a result of the campaigning we’ve done (Science is Vital). You’ll remember that Evan Harris stressed to us that it was important to try to make politicians treat science as a political issue. That they had to realize there are votes in science policies.

    The second purpose is to tell the opposing parties that they’re at least thinking about getting serious about a particular policy, in this case science excellence; and perhaps even more importantly to fire a shot across the bows of cynics in his own party. To inform the Treasury, in fact, that they’re going to ask for money and they have public (voting) support for this.

  4. rpg says:

    And third, of course: to give people like you the opportunity to turn round and say, “Why, that’s great, thank you. Please can we have an extra 300 million quid to make it happen?”

  5. Stephen says:

    Very astute Richard – I suspect you’re on target with all three points. And thanks for the reminder about Evan’s speech. Maybe we’re kidding ourselves but it does appear that the profile of science on govt thinking has improved. I hope we can keep moving in that direction.

  6. The point about getting more universities into the top 100 and “to increase university knowledge exchange income from external sources — industrial investment in university research — by 10%”, isn’t that it needs a case for support but it needs a plan for action. They are targets. It should be universities who say to Willetts – “if that’s what you want to do, then here’s how we do it”. Of course it’s quite reasonable to ask “What is your case for making these targets?”

    The new private universities proposal looked out of place to me, it’s almost like it got chucked into to make a speech about analysis into a policy announcement. The scale of funding required is something of the order of £500million (have a look at the Perimeter Institute for comparable figures), this is the sort of scale of the Cambridge University endowment fund which they’ve built up quite rapidly over the last few years.

    To my mind this will only work as a philanthropic project (in the manner of the Perimeter Institute) even if there is moderate government support (and at the moment none is promised). Philanthropists like the prestige that Oxbridge (and a limited number of other universities offer), making this work for a “green-field” site would be a challenge. From an industrial point of view the £500million scale is enormous, I believe the Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics in Cambridge was something like £40million but that was in a different time.

    • Stephen says:

      Well any good case for support has to incorporate a plan for action — but I think we might be agreed on that.

      I think you’re also right that some philanthropic input may be needed to get something special started though Willetts is clearly hoping that the new university might be a way of getting science and commerce to interact more productively.

      Not altogether irrelevant to this discussion is this interview with Eric Lander, Director of the Broad Institute. He describes it thus:

      Half the place is devoted to finding the basis of disease and half is devoted to trying to transform and accelerate the development of therapeutics

      Sounds like just the sort of thing that Willetts would like to see established in the UK (and I guess not a million miles away from the Crick Institute) but such things need money. The Broad Institute gets its name from Mr and Mrs Broad, real estate millionaires who donated hundreds of millions of dollars to found it. As you say, difficult to see industries coming up with that sort of money.

  7. nico says:

    I will be a lot more cynical than Richard, although it is a nice analysis. Words are cheap, especially to politicians, so unless something is backed with hard cash I just don’t believe it. The tax cuts for industry investing in research are an excellent idea, and one that I believe is used in the USA (or was, but my info is very out of date). And £500 millions is not a huge amount at governement level, the overspend alone on the useless extension to the M25 is about £1 billion. Comes from a different pot though…

    • rpg says:

      Nico, I think this should be viewed more as a call for proposals than a grant application as such. So what youse guys need to do is tell Willetts how much hard cash is needed to implement his proposals, and then he can go back to the Treasury with those data.

    • Stephen says:

      I agree new cash would certainly have bolstered these announcements but I wouldn’t be as quick to discount the value of some words. It is something at least that the government is making speeches about science. Osborne certainly made a play of the protection (albeit in cash terms only and with cuts to capital) of the science budget in Oct 2010. And this is the 2nd speech Willetts has made on science in the past few months, interleaved with one from Cameron on life sciences.

      I think we should applaud that level of activity, even if it is just words because it achieves the important function of keeping science on the agenda. The scientific community should engage positively (as well as critically) with that.

  8. If all goes (apparently) well, you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for the next phase of the political plan – the announcement of x hundred million of new funding for science research. In my experience, such announcements often fall into one of the following categories:

    (1) re-announcement of funds already awarded under some other name;
    (2) “new” program balanced (or even exceeded) by cuts elsewhere, another form of slushing funds around;
    (3) hidden timelines (x hundred million over the next ten years);
    (4) the old “up to” trick so familiar from retail discounts;
    (5) schemes providing large amounts of funds that must be matched from other sources; such sources usually are something like 3x the amount of R&D funds probably available from all likely private sector contributors; and
    (6) probably other tricks I’ve forgotten, that have fooled me into missing them, or that I just don’t know about.

  9. Stephen Moss says:

    Stephen, I admire your determination to look for the positives in ministerial speeches, something I find very difficult, and I agree that Willetts probably has some genuine enthusiasm for science. This must be “a good thing” and clearly should be nurtured. However, I tire at his references to the ‘ring fence in cash terms’, which actually equates to a budget cut of around £1bn after four years (with inflation at its current level). And as some of the other commenters have noted, we should be wary of apparent government largesse in putting ‘new’ money into science when in fact all they are doing is returning a little of this substantial cut.

    Elsewhere in his speech Willetts seems to be creating a disconnect between blue skies research and commercialisation of research. I’ll be posting a blog on this later – too long to put in a comment here.

    • Stephen says:

      Well, I’m a sunny-side-up kind of guy. Usually. I think politics is much more difficult then most people assume and so try to stop myself from making knee-jerk reactions (not always successfully).

      I thought Willetts was actually trying to be reassuring on the question of protecting blue-skies research while at the same time facing down the dilemma that govts have no choice but to make choices.

      I look forward to your blogpost with interest.

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