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The A-team

SPRU lines up new generation of science policy wonks

One of the world’s major centres for the study of research and innovation policy has reached an important milestone. Its founding generation is generously giving way to a new cadre. As we report on our cover, the centre formerly known as the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex has made three professorial appointments strengthening a distinguished team of academics who themselves stand on the shoulders of giants.

SPRU has a well-deserved international reputation as a finishing school for the policy elite of Europe and the developing world. For SPRU alumni from the countries of Africa, or the BRIC nations, a Sussex PhD is a ticket to lifelong influence in the highest circles back home.

There are good reasons for this. Its founders, led by Christopher Freeman and Geoff Oldham, among the most inventive minds of their generation, were the closest that science policy had to rock stars. Freeman’s legacy of innovations include the Frascati manual, which is the agreed methodology for collecting science and technology statistics and led to the development of the OECD’s science and technology indicators. Freeman, who died last year, also left behind a corpus of knowledge on the social impacts of technology. Oldham, in contrast, is more of an institution builder. His legacy includes the creation of Canada’s International Development Research Centre and a deep-level influence in China’s science policy in the 1970s and 1980s. He was also founding chairman of science and development news service SciDev.Net.

Together, Freeman, Oldham and their successors created an institution that was not just a factory for innovative ideas; but through its network of 250, and counting, PhDs, they created a legacy among their alumni too. SPRU is good at influencing policy in other countries because those who came to study in Sussex were already well-networked members of their countries’ elite. When they returned home what they took back with them was advanced knowledge to add to their bulging contacts books.

And yet for all its international eminence, SPRU has less of a commanding presence in its country of birth. There are several reasons for this, too. For the children of senior UK policymakers, “Daddy, I want to go to Sussex,” is not the same as: “Daddy, I want to go to Oxbridge”.

A second reason for SPRU’s relative invisibility is one that these leader columns have returned to time and again since the 2010 general elections: for institutions to get noticed by policymakers they need to be able to challenge those in authority, and they need to be able to do this with style (meaning accessibility) as well as through the substance of their work. But because a good deal of policy-related social science during the Labour years amounted to contract research for Whitehall departments, even with the best team in the world, SPRU’s muscle—its ability to challenge policy decisions—had fewer opportunities to flex.

SPRU’s director Gordon McKerron tells us that he is especially keen to strengthen this aspect of the institution he leads. With so many questions and so much uncertainty surrounding the future of UK knowledge and innovation, if SPRU wants to make more of a noise with its A-Team in place then now is the time to do it.