Report from top science council calls for science spending to be prioritised for UK research base to remain globally competitive

Investment in science should be a government priority and PhD programmes should last four years, according to a report from the UK’s Council for Science and Technology (CST). The report from the prime minister’s top science advisory body analyses the whole breadth of science and engineering in the UK, and prescribes action it hopes will ensure the UK is not overtaken in the research stakes by countries such as India and China. 

The CST report says its vision is that UK research will be ’successful and globally competitive’ in 20 years’ time, but in the face of increasingly severe global competition the research base must avoid ’undergoing either managed or neglected decline’. 

Against a backdrop of spending cuts, the report calls for research to be prioritised over competing financial pressures at a time of constraint in public expenditure. ’Strategic choices need to be made at the downstream, demand-led end of the research spectrum,’ it says.  

Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK, says there is a ’strong case’ for increasing investment in the science base in the current economic climate. ’Other countries are making investments even when they have to cut back in other areas,’ he says. ’We have to follow suit. I think all political parties should look at, and respond to, the CST’s report when they are developing their science policies in the run-up to the election.’ 

The report also suggests that the first two years of a PhD might lead to a Masters qualification that could develop specific, widely deployable skills. It also says a competitive PhD scholarship scheme should be put in place across all UK universities to recruit and support the best students from home and abroad. Another proposal is for a national personal support scheme of prestigious research professorships for the best 100 or so researchers. 

The report has been welcomed by Research Councils UK, which highlights its current activities that support many of the CST’s recommendations. For example, PhD funding is already being extended, and is now an average of 3.5 years. It also supports developments being made in the proposed Research Excellence Framework to incentivise and reward academics engaged in high-impact research.

The CST also recasts blue-sky research as ’upstream’ and applied research as ’downstream’. It calls for two processes to be prioritised: stimulating creativity in upstream research, where excellence is essential to create a world-class research base; and stimulating downstream research to exploit this science for economic and social benefit.

’It is a useful way of thinking through our investment in the research base, which is something different from our investment through the Technology Strategy Board [TSB],’ Dusic says. ’We need a strong and robust and broad investment in our science base, and downstream from that we need more strategic investment in certain sectors through the TSB. The two are complementary investments.’

Sarah Houlton