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.

Science budget: where will the money go?

If you are looking for the detail of today’s announcement by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) on the science budget allocations for the spending review period then please look at the excellent summary by our policy and public affairs manager, Becky Purvis, here.

Further perspective from me in due course.  But, given Breast Cancer Campaign’s letter on CRSF last week and our ongoing campaign on this issue, I am very pleased about the Government’s guideline to HEFCE that they allocate research funding to universities with the aim of protecting funding from external sources including that from medical research charities.  We’ll know more in the New Year.

Guest Blog: Dame Bridget Ogilvie on the spending review

A change is as good as a rest they say.  So I am delighted that our former Chair (as well as former Director of the Wellcome Trust), Dame Bridget Ogilvie, took up my invitation to give us her perspective on the spending review and its implications.  Its closing sentiments about the development of young scientists will strike  a chord with many I feel…..

Dame Bridget Ogilvie

At last we know the worst now that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has spoken. It’s great news that he thinks that investment in scientific research is necessary for the future growth of the economy. So the good news is that the science budget will remain at its current level of £4.6b per annum over the next 4 years, although the research councils and universities will be required to deliver efficiencies worth £162 million a year by 2014-15. 

In addition, the Government has confirmed that they will give £220m in capital funding from the Department of Health budget to UKCMRI, the consortium which includes the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and UCL.  Also, the Government will maintain its commitment to fund developments at the MRC’s LMB, Pirbright and Diamond facilities.In the nation’s present financial predicament, all this is wonderful news and far better than most of us had anticipated.

But….as the cost of scientific research always outruns the general level of inflation, over this time period the value of these funds for science will fall.  We must also remember the wider context of overall funding for universities falling from £7.1 billion to £4.2 billion.  Although this settlement excludes research funding, its ultimate impact remains to be seen.  However, I am sadly sure this will affect the research productivity of universities.

We know too that many research funding charities have already seen a reduction in their ability to fund.  When money for research was reduced in the 1980’s and 90’s, the Wellcome Trust’s funds were increasing exponentially which ensured that the UK remained a real force for medical research internationally.   What Wednesday’s announcement means for charities and other funders we don’t know yet, but many anticipate that it will increase the number of applications for a grant that they receive. So even with this relatively good news, the competition for funds, already severe, will get worse.

What to do?

We know that failure to support the young when times are hard has bad long term consequences. We are still feeling the effect of poor levels of research funding in the 1990’s because the age cohort beneath the present leaders is below strength which is a real worry. We also know there is an increasing tendency to give very large grants to existing leaders with consequent reduction in funds for the less established, and nowadays scientists often don’t get their independence before they are 40+.  My generation became independent 10 or more years earlier.Many excellent people leave a research career when they feel they are unlikely to become independent until after the age of 40. 

Funders rarely pay attention to the way scientific leaders lead and manage their group. There is evidence that once groups exceed 10-12 in number, productivity drops.  Therefore, leaders and funders need to address this issue not only by making sure that developing scientists get a fair share of available resources.  But also that they are properly managed and not unfairly used by their seniors to the advantage of the leaders but the disadvantage of the whole scientific community.

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.

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.