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TSB seeks more freedom from ministers

The only question is how long arm’s-length should be

The Technology Strategy Board is off to a strong start in the government’s triennial review of its form and function, David Bott, its director of innovation programmes, says.

In an interview with Research Fortnight, Bott says the organisation has already had an informed, “grown-up” discussion with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills review team. “I think, to the question of whether the world needs a TSB, the answer is definitely, ‘Yes’,” he says. “The only question we were debating with them was the arm’s-length question and how long the arm should be. We’re going for Mr Fantastic’s arms and they’re going for normal arms.”

The review, announced in Parliament on 10 July, is already under way. It is being carried out by BIS on behalf of the Cabinet Office as part of a government-wide review of arm’s-length bodies. In its first stage, the review will examine whether the functions of the TSB are needed and, if so, whether the five-year-old agency should continue as it is today.

If it passes these tests, a second review stage will make sure that it is operating in line with the recognised principles of good corporate governance. If the conclusion is that the TSB’s structure needs to change, the review could recommend that it is contracted out, taken in-house by BIS, or turned into a research council. However, Kieron Flanagan, a science policy lecturer at the University of Manchester, says such a move is highly unlikely. “Given the [TSB’s] technical expertise, it’s almost a no-brainer that it will pass the test,” he says. The review is more likely to recommend improvements such as closer collaboration with the research councils, he adds.

Chi Onwurah, Labour’s shadow science minister, says that while she thinks the TSB—set up under Labour—should continue in its current form, it needs to address the perception that it is an “old-boys’ network” with a few “usual suspects” getting most of the funding. Although such comments are likely to come from those who have had their funding requests turned down, she says, the TSB should nevertheless ensure that it is totally transparent about how it distributes its funding.

Onwurah is also concerned about the TSB’s record for supporting small businesses and the way in which it manages its £200-million chain of catapult centres. She claims there’s lots of “ad hoc activity” around the centres, which, she adds, have no clear plan for interacting with small businesses.

Although triennial reviews are not designed to make specific recommendations on funding levels, Bott adds that a glowing recommendation could potentially give the TSB an advantage at the next spending review. He expects the exercise to take around four to five months and is confident about what will follow. “All the rhetoric from just about everybody is that we should get an increase,” he says. “We are regularly over-subscribed by a factor of two, so two to three times the money would be useful.”

Business secretary Vince Cable has said the TSB is missing “valuable opportunities” by operating on a declining core budget, which was £317m for the financial year 2011-12.

But Onwurah is less certain about whether the agency should get a bigger budget. “The TSB has actually got increased funding because the Regional Development Agencies were abolished,” she told Research Fortnight. “But I don’t believe all science funding should be centralised in one agency that doesn’t have good regional representation.”

Flanagan says that the TSB could get better at reaching out and communicating with researchers. Since university researchers have strong incentives to focus on basic research with clear publication outputs, he says, the TSB needs a good strategy to get the best researchers working on technological development that might not attract a top score in academic assessment exercises.