Investing In The U.K.’s Big Science And Medical Research

The U.K. Science and Innovation Framework 2004-2014 has taken on new significance with the recent Budget. Scientists, economists and the regeneration arm of government need to make common cause if the proposals to reshape particle physics (PPARC), medical research (MRC) and links between business and innovation are to achieve the promise which they appear in many ways to offer.
The Government, we gather, would like to elaborate its ten year plan for science, the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014: Next Steps, by bringing together the Particle Physics and Astronomy Council (PPARC) and the Council for the Central Laboratories of the Research Councils (CCLRC).
The proposal emerging from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Education and Skills is that these two august bodies be merged as a new body, the Large Facilities Council (LFC). The LRC would have a budget of half a billion GBP a year for current CCLRC work and that part of PPARC’s work which concerns large investments. Other, grant awarding, parts of PPARC would merge with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
The physicists are not happy
It would be fair to say that this proposal has not been greeted enthusiastically by everyone in the science community. To quote one astronomy blog:
This move would place astronomy and particle physics research in direct competition with the rest of the physical sciences for money. I would expect this to mean that it will be harder to get a particular research project funded, as the competition for the limited funds is greatly increased. It will also mean that the new EPSRC will have to develop a plan / road-map for the whole of engineering, physics and astronomy; a pretty huge field. Can one funding council do this alone while maintaining the breadth and depth of research in the UK?
Nor perhaps are the medics
Another of the Next Steps proposals is that the Department of Health‘s research and development budget should be merged with that of the Medical Research Council to bring together all public research in health and medicine in the U.K, with a budget of some billion GBP. Inevitably, there will be questions asked about whether this size of investment can be feasibly managed. (There are possible parallels, not least in the particle physics world, where Cern‘s much admired Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is funded by 20 European states, using the talents of 6,400 scientists from all corners of the globe.)
The wider contexts
These ideas are not, however, developing in a vacuum. Side by side with the recasting of the budgetary alignments are proposals to set targets for increasing numbers of school students, and to increase business investment and involvement in research and development. These are difficult objectives to challenge, except perhaps in the sense that ‘more not less’ might be the cry.
It’s important to acknowledge all the levels at which these various concerns and considerations apply. There are fears for vulnerable / invisible research, there are fears about the status of academic institutions and research bodies, and there are the natural fears of scientists that their jobs maybe at risk. As we know from other change initiatives, these concerns cannot simply be dismissed.
Benefits of a new kind?
We should however try to factor in a number of newer perspectives as we consider these proposals. I have argued elsewhere that support for large-scale or ‘Big Science’ in the North West of England would have been easier to secure, had there not been a stand-off between those medical scientists funded by the NHS and those funded by other bodies.
The regeneration agenda does not, as of course Gordon Brown and his colleagues would argue, stand apart from the agenda for Big Science. The real challenge, however, is to manage the necessary transitions in a way which values and promotes the knowledge economy and those who work within it, rather than leaving them behind, bewildered and resentful about the proposals which are now emerging.
Never has there been a greater need, if we are all to benefit, for the scientists, the economists, the regeneration specialists and the politicians to talk amongst themselves. This, fundamentally, is what the current consultation period on Next Steps must be about.

Posted on March 28, 2006, in Education, Health And Welfare, Knowledge Ecology And Economy, Politics, Policies And Process, Regeneration, Renewal And Resilience, Science Politics And Policy. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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