David Willetts outlines his vision for science

09 July 2010

Commenting on Science Minister David Willetts’ speech at the Royal Institution on the importance of scientific research, Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, said:

“We strongly welcome Mr Willetts’ recognition of the overwhelming case for investment in scientific research, particularly focusing investment on outstanding research. 

“The Minister rightly highlights the importance of innovation clusters.  In the current economic conditions we must concentrate investment where it will have the greatest impact--within our world-class research-intensive universities.  The multidisciplinary Russell Group universities, with their high concentration of talented staff and students and cutting-edge facilities, offer a critical mass of relevant facilities and expertise that is highly successful for international research collaboration, generating clusters of innovation activity and attracting national and international business interaction and investment.

As Mr Willetts notes, it is a myth that the UK’s only strengths lie with being first to make scientific breakthroughs; we have made huge progress in converting these discoveries into commercial and other practical outputs. Most highly successful licences and spin-out companies in the UK have emerged from long-term curiosity-driven research – we are delighted that the Minister understands this. However, the impact of basic research goes beyond spin-outs and licences and is often hard to assess accurately. We are therefore broadly supportive of the one year delay to the implementation of the REF as it is very important that the methodology used to assess impact is fair and robust. We also think that the funding allocated to impact should be lower than the percentage proposed by HEFCE until there is more confidence in the assessment of impact.”

“As the UK’s economic competitiveness becomes increasingly dependent upon high-tech industries and skilled graduates, our leading research-intensive universities will be of increasing and crucial importance in tackling the increasingly today’s complex problems and driving future growth and prosperity.  We hope today’s speech is an indication that support for these world-class facilities, that are such vital building blocks of the UK’s competitiveness, will not be subject to further cuts. 

“Britain is second only to the US in terms of scientific research quality. But as our international rivals pump billions into their research universities, our own have been subjected to cuts in funding and their world-leading status is now at risk. It would be extremely short-sighted, particularly in the light of David Willett’s persuasive explanation of the importance of research, to then cut back on the very activity which will secure a brighter economic future for this country.”

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