A bit of a rumpus about UK science funding policy erupted this week, following publication of a letter to the Times Higher about the move to increase the emphasis towards funding science with a more immediate benefit to the UK economy. This manifests itself as a two page document (the Impact Summary) that now forms part of every Research Council grant application (in addition, I think, to the short "Beneficiaries" section that already exists.
This policy seems to be favoured by the Science Minister, Paul Drayson. Lord Drayson is a politician with a commercial science/engineering background, but who has never been elected to public office. he was ennobled, and reaches Minister status via a seat in the House of Lords. Interestingly, as befits a proponent of grant applicants predicting and outlining future benefits of their yet to be performed research (not just economic but social as well), he appears to claim sixth sense "I saw it coming, says minister of sixth sense Lord Drayson".
Now, I’m not so divorced from the real world that I dispute that scientists need to at least think of these matters, but shouldn’t research that is sufficiently close to market that reasonably accurate predictions of economic impact can be made be funded and conducted by industry? Respected science blogger Professor David Colquhoun certainly thinks the move towards a focus on applied research is ill-advised – he was one of the signatories to the letter to THE, as he describes at his blog: How to get good science: again.
Steven Hill, who currently heads the Research Councils UK Strategy Unit, has responded in his personal blog – A Nobel effort?, though I’m not sure he addresses the complaint fully. The cudgels are somewhat taken up by Philip Moriarty (another signatory to the letter to THE) in comments at the Prometheus science policy blog (an American site, which needs to be borne in mind when reading the original article and some of the comments that follow).
There is a refreshing take from a younger scientist, Oxford PhD student Nick Antis, who runs a blog at ScienceBlogs. He reports on a meeting with Lord Drayson in a recent post – An Unsettling Meeting with the UK’s Science Minister.
I think that UK researchers will end up just knuckling down and do their best to come up with two pages of creative writing that they hope will satisfy scrutiny*. The worry is that those of us who are conducting research with no obvious onward path to the marketplace will feel disadvantaged, even if they are not. And on the other hand, if a grant application that makes no great claim for economic impact is not disadvantaged, then why is an Impact Assessment even necessary? I wonder how science policy would evolve if a science minister were to have come from a background in which he or she had had to fight for grant funding from the Research Councils?
*There’s a useful summary of what’s needed at a blog run by the University of Lincoln’s Research Office (New Impact Summary for Research Council Bids).