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2011 – The year in review

This year will be remembered by many as the one when higher education was shaken to its core. But it was also a period of momentous change for research. We asked those in the thick of the action to give us their choice of the most significant event in research policy.

Thom Brooks, reader in political and legal philosophy at Newcastle University

The big policy event of the year was the unprecedented mass opposition to the inclusion of the “Big Society” in the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s delivery plan. This plan spells out the AHRC’s strategic research funding priorities and it clearly states that the AHRC will “contribute” to the government’s “Big Society” agenda. More than 4,000 academics and 30 learned societies signed petitions and published joint statements declaring almost universal condemnation. This led to en masse resignations from the AHRC’s Peer Review College. The campaign continues for the removal of the “Big Society” from the AHRC Delivery Plan.

Mark Downs, chief executive of the Society of Biology

In reviewing science policy in 2011 it is tempting to focus solely on research funding. But it is the interplay between research and teaching where the real uncharted territory lies. Both are critical to universities and the economy, yet no one really knows the impact of recent government policy: we must remain vigilant in monitoring the outcome. For the life sciences there were excellent messages, with the Prime Minister saying “It is the jewel in our crown” while Oliver Letwin spoke highly of “brilliant work” to value and protect our environment. What a shame that the chancellor appears to see protection of the environment only as a potential burden on business.

Fiona Fox, chief executive of the Science Media Centre

The main event for the SMC in 2011 was the nuclear crisis at Fukushima. Despite ensuring that legions of earthquake and tsunami experts were available for comment, the meltdown at Fukushima was the only story in town and headlines about “another Chernobyl” and “nuclear apocalypse” screamed out from front pages. Some of the SMC’s nuclear and radiation experts were criticised for “playing down” the threat at the early stages when information from Japan was scarce. But I cannot speak out more strongly in support of these scientists. They tirelessly took to the airwaves day after day for weeks to share their vast knowledge and expertise, patiently answer questions and offer a considered assessment of complex and terrifying events. Because of their efforts, alarmist headlines were at least partially balanced by the kind of accurate, evidence-based science we desperately need in times of media frenzy and many people, myself included, know a lot more about the risks of radiation than we did before Fukushima.

Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering

2011 was a big year for us. We had CaSE’s 25th anniversary back in January, which also saw reactions to the Christmas 2010 science budget allocations. This was our first understanding that things weren’t quite as rosy as had initially appeared when the frozen science budget was announced in 2010. In March, the Government backtracked on the migrant cap, introducing new rules for scientists and engineers in response to pressure from us and the rest of the sector—a significant victory. In September, CaSE published “Public Funding of UK Science and Engineering”, a report that myth-busted government claims of freezing the science budget and highlighted a £1.7 billion cut in investment.

Peter Knight, president of the Institute of Physics

In my view, the most significant policy development in 2011 for the future of UK research has not been in research policy at all, but in education. The government has recognised the role of specialist teachers in getting more of our youngsters into science, with new targets for recruitment, expanded support for teacher training and resources, and the announcement last month of a new scholarships scheme for trainee physics teachers, managed by the IOP. More physics teachers will mean more physics students, and the UK will benefit in 10 years’ time as a new generation of enthusiasts reinforces our research base.

Adam Roberts, president of the British Academy

The announcement by European Commissioner for Research, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, at the British Academy in November, that humanities and social sciences would play a prominent part in Horizon 2020, the next European framework programme for research. This was an outcome for which a number of us have been pressing for some time.

Jenny Rohn, UCL cell biologist, founder of the Science is Vital campaign and Research Fortnight’s Achiever of the Year

The most significant science policy moment of 2011 was on 26 October, when Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society, and David Willetts, the minister of state for universities and science, hosted a roundtable discussion to brainstorm how to fix the ailing UK research career structure. In the current system, which offers no permanent academic positions for the vast majority of scientist trainees produced, human capital is exploited and morale is low, a growing problem that if unrectified could endanger Britain’s superlative scientific track record. I was proud to represent Science Is Vital’s grassroots view at the table, most especially the voices of younger researchers who are most affected by the skewed career structure yet seldom have a say in how things are run. But with government working together with the Royal Society amid such a palpable appetite for change, I expect real solutions to result—an outcome that could place Britain in a leadership position on this global problem.

David Willetts, minister for universities and science

2011 has been a great year for science and innovation. Among other things, we have invested in a new birth cohort project, a hub to commercialise graphene, world-class research facilities at Pirbright and Harwell and vital e-infrastructure. We have also ended the year on a high, launching two ambitious and forward-looking strategies that bring the research base and business together: the Strategy for UK Life Sciences and the Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth.

Overall this year we have announced almost £610 million additional capital investment in science. Not only will this keep the UK at the very forefront of research and innovation, but it will also provide long-term, sustainable economic growth and create hi-tech, highly-skilled jobs both now and well into the future.

James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex

My science policy highlight of 2011 was helping to arrange the speech that Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier, gave to the Royal Society in June, in which he called for “an environment which encourages innovation, criticism and risk‐taking”. Viewed alongside the Royal Society’s report on “Knowledge, Networks and Nations”, which emphasises the breakneck speed at which Chinese science is advancing, Premier Wen held out the promise of a more open culture of scientific and academic debate. He also spoke to my own fascination with the role that wider social, cultural and political factors play in encouraging or inhibiting scientific progress—whether in advanced systems such as the UK or US, or emerging economies like China, India and Brazil.