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SPRU prepares to relive its halcyon years

Sussex science policy centre keen to ‘challenge’ government

The Science Policy Research department known as SPRU at the University of Sussex is making a serious bid to revive its glory years with the appointment of several big names to its line-up of experts in research policy.

The Sussex centre has been at the forefront of thinking and policy advice in science and technology studies, innovation research and technological change since its inception more than 40 years ago. SPRU alumni have gone on to set up policy research centres and think tanks all over the world and many work in senior positions in governments.

Now part of the university’s School of Business, Management and Economics, SPRU has announced the appointment of a new generation of researchers who will join from November. They are James Wilsdon, formerly director of the Royal Society’s science policy centre, who is joining SPRU as professor of science and democracy, and Mariana Mazzucato, an evolutionary economist at the Open University, who is taking over the RM Phillips professorship in science and technology policy—a chair first held by SPRU founder Christopher Freeman. To add to these appointments, SPRU has offered Frank Geels, who has worked at the centre for three years, an open-ended contract as professor of system innovation and sustainability.

The changing of the guard is part of a wider set of reforms set in train by SPRU’s director Gordon McKerron and research director Andy Stirling. Many of the unit’s professors, McKerron told Research Fortnight, are of retirement age. He says that the aim in looking to hire the next generation is to find a set of people who could continue to play more of a “challenge” role in relation to government science and innovation policy.

A greater ability to challenge government policy would also set the centre apart from, for example, the RS policy centre, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, and Lancaster University’s Big Innovation Centre, which are more ‘insiders’ than outsiders.

Both Mazzucato and Wilsdon are well-used to asking tough questions of policymakers, and will join the centre’s existing awkward squad including Stirling, as well as the veteran food and agriculture policy researcher Erik Millstone and Paul Nightingale, whose work on the economics of small businesses is directly challenging to government thinking on the idea that small businesses are the engines of future growth.

Mazzucato is the scientific coordinator for a three-year EU-funded project on the relationship between financial markets, innovation and growth. In the UK, she advocates abandoning the patent box scheme and reforming R&D tax credits. In her view, the Technology Strategy Board should be expanded and modelled on the “bottom up” style adopted by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. She also wants the government to take a more interventionist approach to developing green technologies.

In The Entrepreneurial State, a pamphlet produced for the think tank Demos, Mazzucato warns that the UK government’s desire to reduce the size of the state could harm the effectiveness of innovation policies. The state, she suggests, should play an active role in innovation, rather than just creating the right conditions for it to happen in industry.

Though Wilsdon has spent the past three years as more of an insider fighting to maintain UK science spending as head of the Royal Society’s policy team, he has strong outsider credentials too, having led the science team at Demos for five years before joining the RS.

“Research budgets have fared better than we feared but are still under pressure and under threat,” he says. “We need people advocating for the science budget but we also need to really understand properly how we get the best possible outcome for the investments government makes and I think, next time around, we are going to need to articulate that case to the Treasury and other parts of government with a greater level of granularity and detail a stronger evidence base and a demonstration of the consequences over this parliament of the policy and investment changes that were put in place at the spending review.”

Wilsdon argues that the UK needs to strengthen the science of science policy in the way the US has pursued this field. This is particularly pressing now, while budgets are being squeezed in every area, he adds.

He also wants to explore areas such as the relationship between democracy and science and innovation policy in other countries. SPRU is the perfect place for this since so many of the 250 PhDs that it has produced have gone on to influence science policymaking across the world and particularly in emerging economies such as Brazil.

Geels works in the field of environmental sustainability, which along with energy is an area of considerable interest to SPRU. He has brought with him a major European Research Council grant and is chairman of the Sustainability Transitions Research Network, which brings together around 400 researchers from 20 countries including Denmark and Germany. The network launched its own journal—Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions—earlier this year and is shortly to publish its second issue.

According to MacKerron, Geels’ expertise fills a gap in SPRU in the area of the transition to a more environmentally sustainable world. Further professor-level appointments are to follow, including one in innovation and technology. In addition, SPRU will launch two master’s programmes in 2012 in the areas of energy policy, sustainability and international development.

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