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Cable questions concentration of research funding

The business secretary Vince Cable has said he would like the concentration of research funding to be studied in a forthcoming review of how research council decisions can align with long-term plans for the UK economy.

In a speech at the Royal Academy of Engineering on 12 December, Cable asked whether it is right for the UK as a whole that research funding is concentrated in south-east England. “An enormous amount of activity goes on in the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle,” he said. “It’s great that this is world-class stuff, but is it right?”

He asked whether the government should start working with scientists to try to counter the flow of funding into areas of concentration, and said that academics in other cities, such as Leeds, Birmingham and Liverpool, find it hard to build sizeable teams. Speaking to Research Fortnight afterwards, Cable said that it’s not a politician’s job to criticise research council decisions but that the UK isn’t thinking enough about how to support emerging areas of excellence. “The natural default position is to reinforce existing centres of excellence,” he said. “But how do you get to excellence? There’s a vicious cycle problem.”

The review, commissioned by Cable and chaired by Ann Dowling, the RAEng president, will look at all research areas and consider how they can contribute to the economy. Cable said there’s "a big disconnect”, adding that researchers and funders have a responsibility to think about the issue. Dowling said she and the government had not yet set the terms of reference.

In his speech, Cable asked the room of senior people from government, businesses and universities whether, as the UK commits research funds to graphene and quantum technology, somebody should be thinking about how exactly these research investments can take account of the UK’s long-term economic future. “From what I’ve seen of the most recent round of [research funding] decision-making, I didn’t feel like this issue was being addressed properly,” he said.

Both the University and College Union and Million+, a mission group of post-1992 universities, have called in recent months for the UK to take steps to address the concentration of research funding.

Cable said his speech was a “big picture from somebody who’s coming to the end of a period of government”. He had been expected to unveil the government’s science and innovation strategy, but this has been delayed again and is now expected next week—to the annoyance of several attendees.

Cable called on researchers to argue for an increase in science funding, adding that the UK is “seriously underperforming” relative to other nations. The UK should review its accounting conventions that mean science funding is viewed as spending rather than investment, he said, as this is the problem underlying the disconnect between funding for capital projects and meeting the costs that keep them running. He said this leads to “ridiculous situations” such as the Diamond Light Source being unable to afford its electricity bills.

He also said that the UK ought to meet the OECD average of 2.4 per cent of GDP being invested in science, but is well below that at 1.7 per cent. Meeting the target would require an extra £9 billion to be invested over the next 5-year parliament, he said. Asked whether his calls for an increased science budget—which is Lib Dem party policy but not Conservative party policy—showed a divergence between his position and that of the science minister, Conservative Greg Clark, Cable told Research Fortnight: “I suspect that Greg Clark would probably say the same thing if he were allowed to.”

Cable said he had three main questions for researchers, business and funders: is the UK spending enough on research? Is the money being spent in the right way through the right bodies? And are we cracking the problem of innovation and research commercialisation?