A Long Term Vision for Research

The UK Council for Science and Technology released its ‘Vision for UK Research‘ document today. It’s all interesting stuff, looking at how to position the UK in a changing world and doesn’t shy away from making some recommendations that will rattle a few cages) four year PhDs for example).

I particularly liked the clarity of this report, being written in such a way that even our current crop of rather dim politicians (Lord Drayson excepted) might be able to understand it. Who knows, if it could be rewritten in the style of the Daily Mail there might be a chance of someone other than the scientific community actually reading it.

A couple of issues stand out for me.

Firstly is the section on terminology, and the report suggests moving away from the divisive terms of pure and applied research, and looking at it in terms of upstream and downstream research.

Research should be about asking important questions. Existing terminology – in particular the attempts to distinguish between pure (or basic or blue skies) and applied (or directed) research – causes problems and division amongst the research community. At the same time, some descriptors such as curiosity-driven research are both misleading and damaging.

Most current terminologies get in the way of understanding the relationship between research and social and economic benefits. We should think in terms of excellence which carries the potential for impact and harvesting the products of the research base to maximise impacts.

The other idea is the creation of Large Technology Platforms, i.e market driven approaches to solving major problems and strengthening UK industrial competitiveness.

Suggested criteria for Large Technology Platforms

New technologies often need to be further developed by substantial teams for a number of years before they are commercial. These teams need to be larger than the research teams which first made the discovery. They often need expensive production equipment to make the research industrially useful. This requires a dedicated environment with a clear focus for a period of 5 to 10 years.

This can only be achieved through a major partnership between universities, government and industry for those very few exceptional opportunities that meet the following criteria:

• Large (£multi-billion) market

• Verified global UK technical leadership

• Defensible technology position (patents, know-how)

• UK absorptive capacity for the developed platform (skill base, sector companies)

• The opportunity to create a platform technology with wide applicability

Funding

Funding should come from various public sources (TSB, EPSRC, European Framework Programme, RDAs, Universities etc) but should have a substantial industrial component, possibly starting at 25% in the beginning and expanding to 70% over time.

To make a difference in a global context we suspect that each of these platform technologies will need between £50 to £100m over a 5 to 10 year period to become the basis of numerous start-ups and licensed projects to large companies. This will lead to clusters of expertise in these sectors that feed off each other in a virtuous circle enabling the UK to retain global leadership in large markets. The particular amount required will need to be specifically justified in each case.

The problem with this approach is that the last few decades have seen plenty of similar attempts to recreate ‘The Cambridge Effect’, Silicon Valley or to create new industries, and in almost all cases they have been a total waste of  money, and not just in the public sector. Plastic Logic for example, have already burnt through over £100m, only to launch a monochrome e-book reader ten days before apple announce their iPad!

I’m all in favour of research excellence, but any large scale long term ambitions will need to be both properly funded, and properly thought out.

This report does help to mover the agenda in the right direction.

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