"Could do better," advice to Gordon Brown

07 Dec 2006 | News
Responses to the pre-budget statement offer grudging praise and a few suggestions.

"The Royal Academy of Engineering welcomed the 60 million pounds for applied university research but called for a radical change in the UK's current funding system for science and innovation claiming it does not encourage enough risk-taking." That's how The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) has greeted the pre-budget report for the UK from Gordon Brown.
How things have changed. Not long ago the challenge was to get academics to work on projects that had any immediate value to industry. After years exhorting universities to snuggle up to business, we now have the RAE calling for the protection for long-term studies.
In its response to Gordon's gung-ho statement, the RAE says that it "would like to see Research Councils ring-fence part of their budgets for high-risk, innovative work that would not be funded from anywhere else. Industry is active in working with universities on short-term research with immediate applications but more Government support is essential to encourage business to get involved in essential long-term experimental work."
One recent move has been to hand over the management of a large chunk of cash to the Technology Strategy Board (TSB). The loot on offer from the TSB looks attractive until you start looking around. As the RAE puts it:
"The new Technology Strategy Board has delivered significant targets but should be more incisive with more funding - it has only £178 million at present. Compare that with the French Innovation Agency, which has €2 billion to play with."
The RAE also has a few words to say on the new system for health research in the UK. It fears that "there is a real danger" of biomedical engineering "falling 'between the cracks' as it is such an interdisciplinary area".
The academy suggests borrowing an idea from Finland.
"The UK should consider setting up integrated health research projects like the one at Oulu in Finland, where a major university research programme is paralleled by an industrial complex. Small companies develop new products and the nearby university hospital evaluates them."
In its take on the budget, the Royal Society also discusses the plans for health research funding.  It quotes Professor David Read, Vice President of the Royal Society, as saying: "The commitment of more funding to develop the outputs of fundamental research into treatments for patients is no bad thing, providing that it does not siphon money away from vital basic research."
As you would expect from a slightly more militant organisation – it would  hard to be less militant that the RAE or RS – the Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE) puts the boot in with a bit more welly.
CaSE quotes Peter Cotgreave, its Director as saying "in terms of universities, £60 million for applied research is not going to solve their financial problems. It won’t save financially struggling science departments from closure. It doesn’t even look like new money."

On medical research, Dr Cotgreave warns that "although there is a section on ensuring the NHS takes up new technologies as soon as possible, there is nothing about making sure the UK will really be at the forefront of the major breakthroughs from which those technologies might come.”

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