Today, 9th July, the universities and science minister, David Willetts, in a speech to the Royal Institution, confirmed that the REF is to be postponed for a year. The problem with measuring economic impact of research would appear to be the primary reason. He has stressed the need to find a reliable measure of impact that would find consensus within the academic community. However, he also expressed the view that the significance of scientific research could not always be measured by its short-term economic impact, as with the unexpected benefits of blue skies research. “”The surprising paths which serendipity takes us down is a major reason why we need to think harder about impact.” Over the next year, the lessons of the pilot exercise and the experiences of other countries (e.g. Star Metrics in the USA) will be drawn upon.
Willetts rejected the previous government’s thinking on funding of scientific research and innovation.
You’re supposed to put money into university-based scientific research, which leads to patents and then spinout companies that secure venture capital backing. The mature business provides tax revenues for the Government, jobs for the local area, a nice profit for the university.
Yet, he said, on average only 3% of university income ever came from commercialisation of intellectual property.
There were better ways of “harvesting the benefits from research”. Amongst these he said he favoured “clusters”, which he defined as “low-risk environment for high-risk activity”, citing the example of computer games and media companies based around Abertay University.
Government backing for research does make economic sense, he said, and the Research Councils’ funding of scientific research was effective in “generating wider benefits across the economy as a whole”. There may be cuts ahead, but essentially the dual funding system was working and he supported the Haldane principle.
In terms of his own thinking on policy for supporting and developing the research base, he believes that:
- Publicly funded research facilities ( Government support for “shared facilities – research platforms if you like – which private companies could not develop on their own”)
- Public procurement contracts given to innovative SMEs (“A purchasing contract can be as effective a way to get money to an innovative small business as a grant or a capital investment: this is particularly important at times when banks are so reluctant to lend.”
- Public competitions for new technologies (“And it need not be Government which sets the prize or the challenge – it can happen in marketplaces on the web too.”)