Home » Universities UK

Category Archives: Universities UK

Willetts at UUK Spring Conference – white paper, postgraduate education etc

The Science Minister, David Willetts MP, has been speaking today at University UK’s Spring Conference (have UUK actually seen the weather out there?).

The full text of his speech is available from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills website but I was very pleased to see this section in it: 

‘There’s another issue too. We are looking within BIS – in light of changes to undergraduate funding and finance at how we support postgraduate study in future. We have a successful postgraduate sector that has grown substantially over recent years and has done so with comparatively little Government funding or regulation. Many people have raised concerns about the impact that higher graduate contributions could have on participation in postgraduate study – and it would be clearly detrimental to this country if we saw a big fall in postgraduate numbers.

So I have asked Professor Sir Adrian Smith – who, as you know, produced a comprehensive report on postgraduate study in March of last year – to reconvene his review panel and consider this issue in light of the new funding environment.

On research funding, HEFCE has a four-year allocation and should announce institutional allocations for the 2011/12 QR Grant, indicative allocations for HEIF, and teaching allocations on March 16th. Together with other funding bodies, HEFCE will also announce shortly the way forward on the Research Excellence Framework and impact assessment.’

The impact on postgraduate education of changes in the higher education funding is one of the issues that has been raised with me most by AMRC member charities.  Not surprising really when you consider, as an example, the number of new and ongoing postgraduate studentships (approx 700) being funded by them as we speak – they are an important way of bringing new scientists on as well as fostering and supporting important research activity.

As I’m sure you will be aware from the main news headlines about this speech, David Willetts, has announced a delay of the higher education white paper originally slated to be published in March.  This is so the Government can take into account the tuition fees that universities are likely to charge.

Times Letter on Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF)

A brief but important mention of the letter in today’s Times signed by over 100 cancer scientists and doctors.  The letter cites Breast Cancer Campaign (an AMRC member) and highlights the importance of the Government-backed Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) to the funding of research in universities by medical research charities. 

If you want a succinct but well-articulated case for CRSF then you need look no further than this letter.  And it’s significant in my opinion that the argument is being made directly by scientists themselves rather than charities.  This is not special pleading.  The fact is that the Fund is an important foundation for the partnership between Government, universities and charities in the name of research, and a vital mechanism for helping to leverage research funds from our sector.

You may also wish to look at the joint statement on CRSF that AMRC produced with BHF, Breast Cancer Campaign, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, Universities UK and the Russell Group in July this year.  The statement was submitted with our spending review submission.

All our discussions with Government thus far suggest the arguments for the Fund have been accepted just as those on ‘science = economic growth’ were taken on board by HM Treasury with its spending review announcement.  But how this translates into actual money won’t be known for possibly a few weeks yet. So letters like today’s can play a useful role in keeping the issues to the fore.

Willetts on the science settlement

An extract from today’s speech by the Science Minister, David Willetts, at the HEFCE conference in London.  Medical research charities will be pleased with the recognition of their role in delivering research that he mentions several times:

The other main news from the Chancellor yesterday concerned funding for science and research. It is good news for HEFCE’s QR funding and Higher Education Innovation Fund, and good news for the Research Councils and National Academies.

It is proof that this Government recognises the fundamental role of science and research in rebalancing the economy and restoring economic growth. Despite enormous pressure on public spending, the overall level of funding for science and research programmes has been protected in cash terms. And as we implement the efficiency savings identified by Bill Wakeham, we should be able to offset the effects of inflation – thus maintaining research funding in real terms.

There has also been a great deal of pressure to maintain flexibility in government spending. A stable investment climate for science and research – as we all know – allows universities and research institutes to plan strategically, and gives businesses, public services and charities the confidence to invest in the research base. I am delighted to confirm, therefore, that the ring-fence for science and research programmes has therefore been maintained.

Across the country, we have excellent departments with the critical mass to compete globally and the expertise to work closely with business, charities and public services. This £4.6 billion settlement for science and research should mean that we can continue to support them.

The good, the not so good and the uncertain

I can only think of turning the last few hours of trying to absorb today’s announcements and figures in the following way:

The good

  • Surely even the harshest critic would have to acknowledge that, comparatively speaking, science fared well in today’s spending review.  It was certainly spared the savage cuts that we are seeing elsewhere and that were long muted. 
  • The fact that the basic components of the funding regime remain intact means continuity and stability – qualities often overlooked or indeed deliberately attacked in politics but crucial to productivity.
  • The ring-fencing of the science budget, not just because of the protection that it affords, but because it helps to ensure transparency and scrutiny of the science budget.
  • The fact that the government has listened and an important argument about the role of science in the economy and society was won with HM Treasury – it by no means seemed that way just a few weeks ago.
  • The commitment to the Medical Research Council (MRC) and maintaining its budget ‘in real terms’ and also to big ticket items like UKCMRI.
  • The strong narrative in support of clinical research generally.
  • The coalescence of many voices in science behind a common aim…as necessary in good times as well as bad

The not so good

  • A 10 % cut in real terms will still be painful.  Even with the sort of efficiency measures recommended by the Wakeham report some surgery is going to be required somewhere. 
  • What this means in terms of our international competitivenes.

..but, as said, it could have been far worse.

The uncertain

  • The first is the pernennial worry for charities about the settlement for the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) under the QR settlement which has yet to be hammered out.  It is a key lever for our involvement and underpins our partnership with universities.  So, plenty of negotiations to be had yet.
  • The second is that charities will undoubtedly come under pressure to fund more research at a time of less resource.    Competition will be fierce.  This will come with its own associated stresses as we tried to point out in our letter to The Times last week.
  • With less news forthcoming about other research councils some have already intimated the need to ensure what happens here does not undermine interdisciplinary research and partnership. 
  • ….and the great unknown is the extent to which the Browne report recommendations re: tuition and teaching will have a knock-on impact on science and future generations of scientists.

What happens next?

I think the coalesced lobby needs to push on now.  The near-term objective must be to make sure the forthcoming growth white paper translates today’s statement of intent by the Coalition Government into a cohesive plan.

In flying one is taught how to use the circle of uncertainty principle when lost: find a fixed landmark and circle until one can identify where one is by reference to your map. 

The run-up to today has felt a little like that. We have had a fixed landmark in the CSR.  Now, at least, we know how much fuel we have on board (even if it is not as much as we would like).  And it looks likely there is a place to land.  Doing so safely and in one piece is the next and perhaps hardest part to deliver.

Public, private and charitable research: the spillover effect

RAND Europe and the Office of Health Economics (OHE) last week published this rather fascinating occasional paper from a seminar in May.  It examines the spillovers (wider benefits) from biomedical and health research and seems highly salient given what is going on.  I thought some of the diagrams were helpful in visualising the multilying effect of investment and collaboration across the research funding community and helping us to define what the spillovers are.  As the paper concludes these must be targets for further research.

It also gives me an opportunity to flag-up that we will be publishing our ‘Ways and Means’ report looking at research charity collaborations and the wider benefits, at our AGM and Annual Conference on 24th November 2010.

If you are looking for coverage of the Browne review of university funding here’s as good a starting place as any: Daily Telegraph.

Science at the Conservative Party conference – curtain down calls an end to well-rehearsed choreography in the nick of time

After three weeks on the road it is only to be expected that the fringe meetings take on the choreography of a well-rehearsed show. It certainly felt that way with tonight’s  Royal Society fringe. The performances were faultless but there was never any real hope of artistic interpretation.

The science minister, David Willetts, sang well from his hymn sheet but did not, dare not, go beyond the notes or melody we have heard before. It must be a strange existence being a minister ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR); so much to possibly say, so much that can not be said.

At times tonight’s fringe almost felt like the summing up by respective lawyers in a legal case with the final decision now left to Judge Osborne and his cabinet. All the talk around about the conference has been how David Willetts and Vince Cable are persuaded by the arguments but that those to be persuaded are burning the midnight oil in HM Treasury. So I think he and others are probably finding it helpful that the lobby remains active against ‘cavalier’ cuts.

He said he had found the discussion illuminating and expressed the hope that, whatever the outcome in two weeks time, ‘people will feel we have reached a judgement that is fair’ and that they would work with the coalition government to ensure science in the UK remained ‘vigorous, health and strong’.

I was interested in Willetts’ recollection of his early career days at HM Treasury and the nightmare scenario that then existed of the government having to take its orders from the IMF. It perhaps explains why his peers in the coalition government seem so adamant about going so hard at cutting the budget deficit and quickly.

If I am honest, it was one of the new players tonight who interested me most. Richard Lambert from the CBI who seemed more willing to play the scenario game than anyone else. He concluded his opening remarks by saying: ‘A squeeze is absorbable but it has to go with a strong  statement of clear intent.’ ‘Spending should be focused on human capital,’ he said.   It was also a sobreing moment when he astutely pointed out that in terms of cutting public expenditure at BIS, the department only has three pots to play with – Higher Education, Training and Science, ‘ the rest are just crumbs.

You can always trust a journalist to cut to the chase. The last question of the evening went to a journalist from the Sunday Times who asked what a 15% cut would mean for science.

But with catering staff waiting to set up for the next show, the curtain went down on the this final performance before David Willetts was given the chance to answer. Just in the nick of time.

Science at the Conservative Party Conference – it ain't over until it's over

‘So we will give priority to spending that supports growth in our economy. That means investment in the transport schemes, the medical research and the communications networks that deliver the greatest economic benefit.’ George Osborne, 4 October 2010

Welcome, good, important? Yes.

Victory, game over? Of course not.

A noticeable frisson went through the room when we heard through iPhones, Blackberries, other assorted gadgetry and plain old word-of-mouth that Osborne had made the above statement in his conference speech today.

Chancellors of the Exchequer, as all ministers, make conference speeches that are highly crafted over many weeks with each statement and word poured over.  There is rarely anything that is off-the-cuff. Everything is deliberate. So Osborne will have chosen to make a clear reference to medical research perhaps in response to the lobby, perhaps because of its popular appeal.

So, yes, it is an important statement of intent and it gives reason to be optimistic. But it is not reason enough to stop campaigning hard for the best possible settlement for science. Why?

To begin with there is a degree to which Osborne is merely confirming what has been highly conjectured already. We already know that the health budget including the health research budget held by NIHR is being afforded a level of protection under the CSR as the government has stated many times.

If he is signalling that this protection now includes what the MRC also spends then that would be significant.  But we don’t know and won’t know of course until the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) settlement is announced on 20th October 2010. One of the problems with ministerial speeches to conference – as opposed to in their normal day-to-day duties as a minister – is that there are plenty of advisers to explain the political interpretation that is desired but no officials involved to help explain what they mean in practice.

He did, it is true, talk up innovation using Birmingham as an example of a city of invention:

‘Here in this city of innovation let us find the inspiration to turn today’s Britain into an ideas factory for the world. Innovative, ingenious and open for business. For the hard economic choices we make are but a means to an end. And that end is prosperity for all.’

But this is science speak in the loosest terms and he could have chosen to say so much more if he had wanted.

I continue to feel that we are hearing a clearer, more certain articulation of aspirations on medical and health research in Osborne’s speech today and in other coalition government statements (see my blog yesterday about Earl Howe speaking at Sunday night’s fringe) than we are on the broader science budget.

So that is why when someone asked me after Osborne’s speech what we do now, I said it is very simple: ‘We continue to press hard.’ And that means persuading government to to invest strongly in the science base, the platform from which successes in medical and health research ultimately stem. Pledges on medical and health research will not amount to as much as the government would like to believe without this commitment to what underpins it as well.

The ‘Science is Vital’ campaign petition is creeping up to 13000 so please keep signing.  Plus there’s a rather lovely guest blog by Jenny Rohn (whose idea it initially was) on Martin Robbins Guardian blog.  It is well worth a read.

Congratulations of course to IVF pioneer Bob Edwards for being awarded the Nobel Prize today some 30+ years after the first IVF baby was born. I wonder if it counts as evidence of impact by the government’s definition?

Report on ‘Research to the rescue’ fringe tomorrow morning!

Science at the Conservative Party Conference

Two down, one to go.  Here’s science related ‘matter’ at the Conservative Party Conference which starts in Birmingham tomorrow.

Birmingham University was of course the venue for the Science Minister, David Willett’s, first speech after taking office.  I am looking forward to being one of the hosts when he joins us for a roundtable breakfast on Wednesday.  I have been speculating whether he eats ‘clusters’ for breakfast or plain old corn flakes person.

In terms of the formal conference agenda items of interest include debates on ‘Big Society and People Power’ (cue a reminder to sign the Science is Vital peititon which has over 10,000 signatures now including support from the Wellcome Trust) on Sunday afternoon, ‘The Economy’ on Monday morning before lunch, debates on publci services and welfare onTuesday and the Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, speaks on Wednesday afternoon.  You can see the agenda here.

My pick on the fringe….I shall be chairing the ‘Innovation as a cure’ meeting organised by Alzheimer’s Research Trust, Anthony Nolan and ABHI on Sunday evening at 5.45 or there is the Breakthrough Breast Cancer tea party starting at 5.30pm if you prefer, and another of our charities, Ovarian Cancer Action is looking at women’s health at 9.30.  The latter features Sarah Wollaston MP who is on the Health Select Committee and a GP.

You can kick off your Monday at 8am with Birmingham Science City which has a fringe entitled ‘Innovation and the Green Revolution.’  A bit later at 12.30pm why not decompress after George Osborne MP’s speech to conference by going to the British Chambers of Commerce debate.  I only mention it because the Financial Secretary, Stephen Timms MP, and Shadow Business Minister, Will-Butler-Adams MP, will be speaking.  Surely after hearing from this trio we might be able piece together a narrative for economic growth?

But I am sure most of you would prefer to hear David Willetts speak at the NESTA fringe which is taking place at the same time (12.30pm) on the subject of ‘Made in Britain: Building a 21st century economy.’  Either that or hearing Earl Howe, the Department of Health Minister responsible for medical and health research, speak at the ‘Research to the rescue’ fringe at 12.45pm hosted by BHF, Diabetes UK and the Stroke Association.

The Guardian’s engaging Michael White chairs the Health Hotel debate on Monday evening (19.30) and Health Secretary Andrew Lansley MP is speaking at the Health Hotel reception afterwards (which is invitation only sadly, what happened to the days when you could walk in to these things).

The 1994 Group and others hold a lunchtime debate on the future of higher education at 12.30pm on Tuesday and so are Reform with Universities UK at 1.00pm with David Willetts MP invited.  This one is called ‘Building the Future: Higher education and economic growth.’  [nb: one of the perils of conferences is the fact that many similarly-themed fringe meetings clash but I find you can run from one to the other if you are quick on your feet).

Also of interest on Tuesday lunchtime is the Asthma UK, Novartis Pharmaceuticals UK Ltd and Smith Institute fringe: ‘Can Health Cuts Be Good For You?’ Andrew Lansley is down to speak at this one which starts at 1.00pm. 

The Royal Society takes its ‘Scientific Century’ debate to conference on Tuesday evening at 7.30pm with David Willetts MP, Paul Wellings (Chair of the 1994 Group) and Brian Cox.  The Chemical Industries Association pop up this week with their own event at 7.45pm looking at ‘Science Education: The next deficit’ which looks more like a reception but I might be wrong.

And that’s it….a much busier conference than the other two as you might expect.  I look forward to seeing you there.

Science's reputation will be easily cracked, and will never mend well

Forgive the headline which is a version of Benjamin Franklin’s: ‘Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked, and never mended well.’ 

If you haven’t seen today’s Guardian splash on science cuts then you should really take a look.  There is a wealth of detail but the human stories are the most absorbing aspect of the piece as always.  At least one of the scientists interviewed (David Proctor), is conducting work funded by medical research charities. 

It is a tragedy to see confidence in the future of UK science slipping away among our scientists in this way.  It will certainly have an impact of medical research charities and it will undoubtedly mean that it will be harder to make an impact with the donations they receive.  

What did Benjamin Franklin also say: ‘It takes many good deeds to build a reputation, and only one bad to lose it.’

…Next week I’ll be blogging from the Conservative Party Conference as usual and we will be publishing our response to the NHS White Paper plus bringing together the latest reports and evidence on public and patient involvement in research.

How will cutting science funding affect your university?

Nature blog contains an interesting item today looking at the impact of science funding cuts on different universities assuming that funds are directed away from 2* as opposed to 3* or 4* research – the excellence rating given under the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

But William Cullerne Brown goes into much more detail, looking at different cut scenarios and their impact.  Fascinating but unpal;atable reading.

The knock-on effects will be significant for charities.  80% of all charity funding for research (£1.1 billion in 2009-2010) goes to universities.  And about 80% of this goes to universities who are members of the Russell Group.  But, depending on the scenario, significant amounts of charity research will be vulnerable. 

The pictures drawn here are helpful at least in, as Nature says, visualising what could happen to different institutions and making global figures begin to make sense in terms of the impact on the ground.  Information that should be passed on to every MP with such an institution in their constituency.  And you can do that through the Science is Vital campaign site.

Science at the Labour Party Conference – Ed captures hearts but not science

In my potter around the conference exhibition this afternoon, I stumbled upon a stand for the ‘People’s Museum’ here in Manchester which charts the struggles of the working class and houses the Labour Party’s official archives.

I wish I had time to pop along if only to check whether my knowledge of political history is as good as I would like to think.

I won’t be the first to make the comparisons between the scenario inherited by Ed Milliband and that by Harold Wilson in 1963 – a demoralised party emerging from election defeat, the country faced by a massive deficit etc etc.

Almost to the day 27 years ago, Harold Wilson made his infamous ‘white heat of technology’ speech to the Labour Party conference in Scarborough. ‘The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry’ is what he actually said.

Brian Walden recounts in a BBC Online piece that later that day – 1 Oct 1963 – a trade union leader remarked that Harold Wilson had ‘captured science’. A strong statement indeed.

Delegates watching Ed Milliband on one of the exhibition tv screens

Ed Milliband’s speech today will no doubt be marked down as the ‘new generation’ speech and I understand his need to speak to his party above all at this time.  But given the impassioned speeches I have heard from shadow ministers this week about the need for a good story on growth and the importance of science in that story I was disappointed that we did not even get a hint of either in the Ed’s opening gambit.

I looked back at the programme for the Scarborough Conference and noticed that Dick Crossman was also speaking on the same day as Wilson about the organisation of university research.  Strange how these issues are cyclical, a shame that a sense of history is lost to us when facing the current.

I think Will Hutton said last night: ‘It is only science that can save us.’

Science at Labour Party Conference – Vital Signs

First, a general observation.  Less than one day here and I have met four ‘Eds’ already – more than in the previous ten years travelling the breadth of the UK. Strange that.  But perhaps when you are faced by David Willetts you need as many ‘Eds’ as you can get.

I came expecting a muted, self-sorrowful Labour Party conference.  But my assumptions have been confounded.  This is a political party that, run out of town six months ago like the shamed sheriff who lost the biggest gunfight of them all, is now appearing on the horizon with renewed appetite for the affray.

Whether you agree with that analogy or not, the Labour Party is showing that its vital signs remain strong.

It was good to see 50+ delegates turn-up to the lunchtime fringe meeting ‘Innovation as cure’ organised by the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, Anthony Nolan and the Association of British Healthcare Industries (ABHI) and chaired by yours truly.

Robert France who was in Liverpool with me, spoke movingly again of the stem cell transplant received by his son, Jackson.  Dionne Priddy described the hopelessness her family felt after her husband, Mark, was diagnosed with pre-senile dementia and entered a rapid decline.  He died earlier this year and Dionne still ran the marathon just days later to raise £14,000 for dementia research.

Questions from the audience of patients, carers, scientists and politicians ranged far and wide – from informed consent to the bonfire of the quangos.  The opposition health spokesperson, Baroness Thornton, said that she and the health team were committed to campaigning for, and championing, health research.  She explained how there would be a review of health policies over the next 12 months in what was intended to be an inconclusive process drawing in external views, with workstreams looking into particular issues.  She expressed concerns over the possible break-up of the HFEA and said that their message on the health white paper was that it is the ‘wrong white paper and the wrong bill at the wrong time.’

The Royal Society meeting this evening (co-hosted by the 1994 Group) was more sparky than that at the Lib Dems. The Shadow Higher Education Minister, David Lammy MP, spoke powerfully about his determination to fight science cuts, expressed concern over the possible disappearance of the ring-fencing of the science budget (I heard it was 50:50 whether it would stay or not, which would be a break with 30 years of history), and argued that the result of the general election was the worst possible outcome for science. With an obvious nod to Tony Benn in the audience he said that Labour’s passion for science ran deep and over many generations.

David Lammy MP

Will Hutton (of the Work Foundation), who often succeeds in turning on its head any preconceived notion you might have held on an issue, argued that he would cut all budgets before laying hands on the science budget since it was the source of growth and wealth creation from which everything else ultimately stems.

He said that those countries who invested most in science and technology would be those than benefited most from leaps in knowledge and innovation in the future.  He also spoke passionately about the science ecosystem and the need to create better systems and institutions – innovation centres – to enable knowledge transfer.

In response to a question from the floor about what the science community could do in the face of the forthcoming challenges, all the panel agreed that the most important thing was to build the largest collaboration of supporters possible.

And given that, can I point you and encourage you to sign the Science is Vital petition (which I signed today).  You’ll also find details of the planned rally and lobby of parliament on 9th and 12th October.

Brain drain in science story

You may have heard the news headlines this morning about the House of Lords Science & Technology Committee letter to the Science Minister, David Willetts, expressing fears about a brain drain of scientists from the UK to other countries.  

Reasons include people’s growing concern over possible cuts in science funding and what it could mean for their work, but also the attractive packages now being put on the table by other countries such as Australia.  You can find the full text of the letter on BBC New Online here.

It makes for sobering reason not least because of the evidence put forward by the six universities contacted by the Committee.  Whatever the Government might say about wanting to be an international centre for science, my fear is that a combination of the CSR and unhelpful policies such as the cap on non-EU migrants is creating a perception that reality does not match Ministerial statements.

Venture capitalists weigh in on science funding debate

I spoke at an interesting event last week organised by OneNucleus, a membership organisation which brings together international life science and healthcare companies.  The audience was packed with representatives of both large and small companies including many biotechs.  It was the day before Vince Cable’s speech and much concern about what he would or would not say.

I see today that veture capitalists – who often provide the seed investment for spin-off companies to take research ideas forward and comercialise them – have weighed into the debate.  It is significant because as you may remember Vince Cable sais he was keen to encourage more spin-offs as part of the Coalition Government’s strategy.  There is an excellent piece on their concerns running on ‘Financial News’ run out of dow jones newswire.

The relevance to charities?  As I found last week many such companies are anxious to forge alliances and partnerships with charities and patient groups as both sources of funding and patient experience that can help them make their products work better for patients.

Cable and Willetts in show of dual support

I did warn you that things would really get going this week….and with two speeches in as many days you can be forgiven if you feel as if you have taken a left hook and then a right hook in quick succession.

Science Minister, David Willetts, was on the stump at a Universities UK conference today.  He used his speech to say that universities have become too focused on research.  You can find a BBC Online piece here.  And I am sure many of you also heard Willetts on the today programme this morning interpreting yesterday’s speech by Vince Cable.  The Independent covers it here.  And just to show that I for one will not be applying a cap to my readership wherever they come from, here’s a piece from WalesOnline which is rather good in capturing views of experts there including nobel prizewinner Sir Martin Evans.

In the hurly burly yesterday it was remiss of me not to mention that the Academy of Medical Sciences had published its response to the Comprehensive Spending Review.

%d bloggers like this: