The Launch of the Council of Science and Technology’s report, “How academia and government can work together”

The CST is the most senior science advisory body in the UK, reporting directly to the Prime Minister, and has 15 members, ranging from social scientists to industrialists. Their role includes advising on innovation policy and undertaking projects; this was one such project, instigated by John Denham.

Professor Dame Janet Finch introduced the report. This report was required since a need was identified to strengthen meaningful engagement between academia and government. These are not the same issues as face engagement between academia and industry, though there are some comparable points. The CST sees there is a gulf between academia and government, and is looking at why and how it can be bridged.

The report recommends three areas to be considered:
- Build relationships and communication between academics and policy-makers
- Build capacity to ensure a more active engagement (on both sides)
- Rate, value and reward the engagement (ensure it is reflected in career structures etc.)
What is needed is more world-class exchange mechanisms, in both directions, at all levels and for different purposes.

John Denham offered a government response to the report. The need is apparent to mobilise the resources of our world-class research base. This relates to the HE Review which is ongoing, since better working relations between academics and government will help to make the case for further investment in academia. Ministers need policies that work, and evidence for it, and academia can produce this. Both sides need to see this interaction as “part of the day job”. There are issues which need to be addressed, such as the relationship with the Research Excellence Framework (the replacement for the Research Assessment Exercise), but DIUS is looking in depth at practical proposals for taking this forward.

Baroness Warwick, Chief Executive of UUK, responded on behalf of the universities. We should be “delighted” that government recognises the significance of academic input to policymaking. The report points out that there is a need to reconcile differing expectations, and for a culture change to facilitate the exchange of people, research and resources. The universities are in a unique position to make a contribution to government and there is much to be learned from this experience. We need greater permeability of the boundaries between academia and the wider world generally. The details now need to be worked out; for example, we cannot only reward research which finds political favour.

Finally, three researchers who had taken part in an ESRC exchange scheme discussed their experiences with Vivien Parry, highlighting the issues of the report, such as that there seemed little merit for their department, and is not recognised as an aspect of their research careers. However, all three recommended the ESRC exchange as an excellent way of contributing to policymaking and as a positive experience for them.

The report is available online here.

National Student Forum

I’m delighted to say that the National Student Forum has launched our first annual report. This was presented to the Government by our chair last week, and we have been promised a formal response to the points we have raised about improving life for students in the UK.

We now have a website, which means that hopefully people will start to know who we are! The website, with information about who we are and what we do, and also with a link to the report, can be found here.

DIUS Expo 08

Anyway, after my trip to Russia it’s back to work and reality. I was pleased to be invited to attend the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills Expo 08: One Year On, to celebrate DIUS’s anniversary, as a new department, and to have the opportunity to consider what has been done in that year. The first workshop I attended was from Research Councils UK, talking about “Unlocking the Talents of UK Researchers”. Obviously, as a (largely unfunded) researcher myself, this was something I was particularly interested to hear about. The speaker gave some background, stating that in terms of bibliometric data, the UK’s researchers are second in ranking only the the US, and are the most productive in a G8 country. Moreover, we’re international, apparently – nearly half of postgrads and 1 in 7 academics are from overseas.
The research councils’ missions are to support research excellence (good!) However, as the speaker admitted, although the seven research councils cover all possible areas of research, there is still an emphasis on STEM subjects (science, engineering, technology and mathematics). Research, it seems, still equals science. All seven councils have common missions (which I believe can be found on the RCUK website, if you care!)
RCUK have three particular ways of helping researchers: Providing skills/skilled people; stimulating ideas, and providing opportunities. The skills aspect is largely about training, it seems, and the skills needed by researchers include: research techniques, entreprenerial skills, public engagement, management, personal effectiveness, communication skills and networking. Fair enough – mostly. However, I am a little more dubious about aligning research with public policy – yes, to a certain extent that helps to put the universities on the agenda and ensures that much-needed research is being done. But that must not be at the cost of “blue skies” research, in any discipline. (Kind of related to this, an interesting article in the Times Higher talks about universities’ role in working with innovation). There are six programmes running involving three or more research councils, and they are: Living with environmental change; Energy; Ageing: Lifelong health and wellbeing; Global Uncertainties: security for all in a changing world; Digital Economy; Nanotechnology through engineering to application. All worthy, but you know, I don’t see much room for Victorian poetry, heritage, culture etc there.
In fact, I was at the Expo as part of a panel, representing the National Student Forum – and if you don’t know what that is, hopefully you will do soon as we are about to release a report. We’re 16 students from across the UK, working with DIUS to represent the student voice, and, building on reports from Student Juries across the country, help the government tackle issues such as finance, teaching standards, employability, accomodation, information and support, etc. We had a session in the afternoon with Baroness Morgan, Minister for Students, who has been immensely supportive of us, and it was great to see that so many of the delegates are genuinely interested in helping to make the lives of students better.