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Willetts unveils plans for private science university

Science minister David Willetts unveiled plans for a new type of privately-funded university focused on science and technology disciplines and on postgraduate training in a speech at the Policy Exchange in London on 4 January.

In a wide-ranging address, Willetts argued that government policies would help make Britain the best place in the world to do science. They were designed to build on the strengths of the university system and to create greater diversity within the system by exploring new institutional structures.

The coalition government would be inviting proposals from the private sector to establish centres, using New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plans for a graduate school in his city as a possible template.

“Local economic partnerships, universities, businesses and international partners can come together to put forward proposals for new institutions,” said Willetts.

He emphasised that there would be no additional government funding for such an institution.

“We will be looking to private finance and perhaps sponsorship from some of the businesses that are keen to recruit more British graduates. We will not be diverting funding from support for undergraduate students.

“It is an opportunity to seize the new freedoms which we proposed in our White Paper last year… I am confident that with ingenuity we can grow our research base and our universities even when times are tough.”

Willetts argued that UK universities and research facilities were “our greatest national assets” and offered the best hope for drawing the country out of recession and into the hi-tech world of the future.

“If properly nurtured they can ensure that Britain will be up there as a leading location for research in the physical and life sciences and beyond. Britain can be the preferred location for companies’ R&D. We can have world-class industries using cutting-edge technologies. We can have a prosperous future with a role in the world,” he said.

Among specific measures to encourage technological developments, Willetts announced that the Technology Strategy Board’s fourth catapult centre will focus on allowing industry and academic groups to collaborate on developing satellite applications.

“This will provide business with access to in-orbit test facilities to develop and demonstrate new satellite technologies. It will also provide access to advanced systems for data capture and analysis, supporting the development of new services delivered by satellites. These could be in a wide range of areas such as distance learning and telemedicine, urban planning, precision agriculture, traffic management and meteorology,” he said.

He also announced his intention of setting up leadership councils in e-infrastructure and synthetic biology, bringing together key players to drive forward private investment and innovation.

The government was aiming to get more UK universities into the list of the world’s top 100 institutions and to encourage universities to increase their funding from private sources by 10 per cent over the next three years.

Immediate responses to Willetts’ speech were positive.

David Docherty, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, said, “Collaboration between business and higher education is key to generating cutting edge research. The government needs to continue with imaginative schemes to create the right environment to make this happen. Today’s announcement is therefore very exciting and good news for the country’s research base.

“The new industrial revolution will be driven by advanced technology, design and profound social thinking. It is therefore vital that business collaboration with universities and the Technology Strategy Board is prioritised in the setting up of new research institutions.”

The government’s chief scientific adviser, John Beddington, said: “I am delighted that in his speech this morning David Willetts reaffirmed the importance of science, technology and innovation for generating growth now and for building future prosperity. I am particularly pleased that he found the Foresight project that I commissioned on Technology and Innovation Futures helpful.”

However, Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, noted, “The minister is right to underline the challenge facing the UK: we should aim to be the best place in the world for science, but we’re currently way behind nations such as Germany, Japan, and the US in terms of business and industry investment in research.

“Today, David Willetts reiterated a whole series of positive measures the coalition is taking to incentivise more private sector investment—but no political party has yet outlined a clear alternative vision for the UK economy. The government should spell out what they think a ‘rebalanced’ economy looks like: what would really count as ‘success’ for their innovation policies?”

Mark Downs, chief executive of the Society of Biology, said, “The society welcomes the government’s commitment to further develop the UK’s research capacity whether through private or public sector investment. However, we urge the government to continue to look at ways to restore the public funding of science that will otherwise be eroded by inflation over the current spending review period.

“The recognition given to the opportunity of synthetic biology is good news and we must collectively ensure that the benefits and research goals are fully and clearly communicated to the public,” he added.