atheneThe UK government’s Science and Innovation Strategy released earlier this week fails to recognise the challenges facing UK research sustainability. Athene Donald considers the enthusiastic spin in light of wider funding issues. Surprisingly, a new review of the research councils is suggested. More effective cross-council working is certainly needed, but an overhaul or further consolidation could do more harm than good.

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 responsibilities‘ setting 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  over at In Verba, the Royal Society’s policy blog. 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 Alan Turing 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.

This piece first appeared on Athene Donald’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental Physics at Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. Athene has been at Cavendish since 1983, and became a professor in 1998. Her activity sits within the sector of Biological and Soft Systems, and focusses on using the ideas of soft matter physics to study a wide range of systems of both synthetic and biological origin.

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