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Knowledge transfer & blue skies research

Last Updated on Sunday, 01 December 2013 20:49
Published on Wednesday, 29 March 2006 00:00
Will basic research be squeezed in favour of R&D for commercial application?
The government's  'Science and innovation investment framework 2004-2014: next steps' gives priority to making UK science  more responsive to economic and public policy priorities and promoting  greater collaboration between industry and the research base. Will this be at the expense of basic, curiosity driven research?

An insight into government thinking was provided by Sir Keith O'Nions, DG of RCUK, who gave the following evidence to the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons

Extracts from the uncorrected evidence given by Sir Keith O’Nions,  15 March 2006

Dr Harris: …I quote, and this is your chance to correct the record, from 'Research Fortnight' of 22 February: "According to sources in the two research councils, Keith O'Nions, the Director General of the research councils, said that he would like to see a peer review system that takes into consideration issues such as success in forming spin-out companies and the use of science in policy-making". That may or may not be true, but there is a feeling out there that there is going to be a slant towards that sort of approach.

Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Well, I think there is a feeling out there which may not be very credible. A careful reading of that article is that it is somebody who quoted somebody who quoted me saying it, so what I can say is that the best comment I heard about it is that it should get the Booker Prize for fiction, and the nicest thing I can say is that it is total tosh!

Dr Harris: And you wrote to 'Research Fortnight' to make that point?

Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I did not write to it because actually I thought it was so far removed from anything I have ever said or believe that it was not worth the stamp.

Dr Harris: Well, you have put it on the record now.

Chairman: So when PPARC actually include as part of their process the issue of knowledge transfer and spin-off, that is not in contradiction with what you have said?

Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: No.

Dr Turner: That was the very point I wanted to raise because I am learning that some of the research councils are in fact asking the applicants to indicate the knowledge transfer potential of their work at the time that they make the application before the basic research is done. Well, of course in blue skies research, you cannot always do this. There are times when you cannot tell where the next whizzy application is going to come from if you have not done the blue skies research for its own sake, so would you agree that there is a tension there and how do you think it should be controlled?

Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Let me say that I agree with the point you make, that potentially there could be a tension there. I agree with you wholeheartedly that, when someone is engaged in pure blue skies research in pure mathematics or something analogous to relativity, what applications that may have is completely unknown.

In the structure of DNA in the 1950s, it was completely unknown, and you could not have predicted, that it would go into forensic science and genomic medicine, but a lot of research that is done is an application of some of those blue skies things and we tend still to call that 'basic research'.

I do not think it is unreasonable to be asking if it can be foreseen at that time, and it is particularly true in engineering subjects, for example, a potential application, and I think that is a reasonable thing to ask. The National Science Foundation in the United States has had this as a routine part of their application for many, many years.
I think it is up to the peer review panels and the peer review process to look at that and make their judgments, but I agree with you that there could be a tension if that is interpreted out there in the research community that, unless you can identify the clear application for your research, its chances of being funded are going to be very much less and that would be an unwelcome tension.

Dr Turner: Obviously applicants are either going to give the honest answer, "I have no idea at this stage", or they are going to think, "Oh, I had better think of something to put down", which may be absolutely meaningless, but they have filled in the box and I take it that you want to avoid that. However, having said that, how do you set your guidelines in asking the research councils to play their role, whatever it exactly is, in carrying forward the Government's knowledge transfer agenda?

Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: ... The relationship between government, ie, me, I suppose, and the research councils, there is the performance management framework that specifies two broad outputs: the first is improving the international excellence of the science that we undertake in the UK; and the second output is improving the exploitation of that science for both the public good, the health outcome, security and for economic benefit.

Output 2, as we colloquially call it, on exploitation, and certainly exploitation for economic benefit, has a performance management framework...we are looking at, for example, the intent and scale of company partnerships, joint collaborative things, CASE studentships, and we are looking at the strategic alliances involving research councils. We are looking at support, what they are spending on support for enterprise, and we are looking at student collaborations between business and universities. That is for EPSRC and it is broadly similar for all the research councils, but it differs somewhat according to the character of the research councils...

We have been very cautious not to set targets because, when you set targets, that is what you get... We are cautiously, but quite actively, evolving this performance framework and the performance that we set is a very close agreement with the research councils; it is much reflecting what they believe they wish to do and can achieve…EPSRC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, for example, it has a £720 million budget, the biggest of our research councils, 40 per cent of its entire budget goes to promote knowledge transfer, which is a very large amount, and basically about £130 million of it is in collaborative research with business, which is very clear, and about £60 million is collaborative training at the postgraduate level…

I am extremely interested in how we can improve the economic impact of knowledge transfer in research councils and I have set up a committee chaired by Peter Warry ( Chair of PPARC) who will report to us later this summer, and the terms of reference for that... is to advise on how research councils can deliver, and demonstrate they are delivering, a major increase in the economic impact of their investment.

The full transcript can be read here