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.